The morning of the bilateral mastectomy was a blur.  I was up and out of the door prior to 6am, giving my husband and children quick squeezes before I left.  Before I know it, I was being prepped for surgery- including a pregnancy test even though I had been in chemo induced menopause for 5 months (salt in the wound!).  I was nervous, while I knew that having a bilateral mastectomy had always been my plan (something that my mom did not do and who knows if that could have prolonged her life), there are limits to how prepared one can be emotionally for such a significant surgery.  I had been listening to Peggy Huddleston’s guided meditations- Prepare yourself for surgery- since the beginning of chemo, which I highly recommend.  You can find her information on http://www.healfaster.com.

The creepy thing about surgery is that, thanks to Versed,  one moment you are being wheeled into surgery and then the next time you are conscious again- it is all done.  Waking up you feel a great deal of confusion and likely pain.  It’s disconcerting to realize that you have no conscious memory of what just happened, even though this is a blessing.  The fog of pain relievers prolongs this effect for some time.

The anxiety of facing your altered body is pretty potent.  I was really grateful that my aunt, a nurse, had offered to take care of me after the surgery, so I did have a sense of how things might look when I was ready to see it.  As I reflect upon the first time I finally glimpsed my chest, sans natural breasts and nipples, I still feel a deep sadness and loss.  It’s not a sharp pain of loss, but one that feels heavy and soft.  Watching my children be brave enough to face this tremendous change and honestly express their feelings about it brought us closer together and amplified the grief, for I no longer had a soft chest for them to lay their heads upon, nor a physical reminder of mama’s milk.  They hated the expanders, which were in place through radiation, but expressed satisfaction with the implants since they were much softer to the touch.  I wonder whether they will retain a memory of my natural body and the comfort it provided them, and when I think about the likelihood that this may be forgotten it makes me feel so sad.

One of the ways we need to heal following surgery, regardless of the surgery you had, is to be able to witness, observe and ultimately accept the new look.  This includes working with our mental image of how we look, which requires re-programming our brains to have an accurate perspective of the body.  Given that my surgery happened on the front of my body, I was constantly reminded of this change.  Constant reminders can be very bittersweet, on one hand it makes it difficult to forget what has happened, yet on the other hand it gives us ample opportunity to identify where we are in our process.  The first time I was in a locker room after swimming, I had a mini anxiety attack at the thought of changing, because I had not prepared myself for the possibility of having strangers witness my clearly altered chest.  I ultimately figured it out, but it was a good reminder of how it takes time to identify our triggers.  Recently I had a dream that I was changing in a locker room, and my dream self looked like my body as it is today, and I celebrated a little victory towards this evidence of how I am accepting myself.

When we accept ourselves for who we are and how we look, the impact is potent and carries many gifts.  Our confidence, self worth and self love strengthens.  It eases the process of recovering our intimacy with our partners and reclaiming our sexuality.  It eases the suffering we have felt and provides a pathway for letting go, bringing us more fully into the present.

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Creative Transformations offers individual sessions, in person or via Skype, teaching art and meditation for healing the body, mind, spirit, and self; workshops; and this weekly blog. Please visit our website to learn more: www.creative-transformations.com.