The Miami Herald

Facing my fears after mastectomy

I went to sleep with breasts and woke up without them at Baptist Hospital. I never flashed them during Mardi Gras, nor did I profit from them online. The 34-Cs lived a short private life.

In their place were two saltwater balloons called expanders. They were hiding behind a very tight white bra. The drugs were flowing intravenously, friends surrounded me and I was grateful to be alive.

The medical director of Baptist Health Breast Center, Dr. Robert DerHagopian, had performed a simple bilateral mastectomy, the removal of the entire breast tissue. He also removed the sentinel lymph node, where he found metastasizing cancer cells.

“We couldn’t save the nerve,” DerHagopian said. This would explain the internal pinching sensation I was feeling in the back of my left arm — among other pains.

There were drainage tubes inserted in my chest and a small suction device attached to remove fluid into two small plastic balloons. These were gross. The fluid had to be emptied and measured regularly.

During my three-day stay at Baptist Hospital, the nurses were my angels. Some cared more than others.

“I know you are in pain, but you have to get up and walk around,” said nurse Katja Suelzner.

The risk of blood clots is reduced dramatically if you move around. Getting me out of bed was an ordeal.

The hallways of the hospital’s oncology unit had a few other people racing for life. I wondered how many of them would make it. My brother escorted me, and when I felt nauseous, rushed for a garbage can with one hand as he held me with another.

“Are you OK?” he asked. I responded in the affirmative and rushed toward the finish line — the bed.

A couple of friends who came to visit me cried by my bedside. I reassured them I was going to get my life back.

The reconstruction of my breasts was in the hands of Dr. John Cassel. He came to visit me at the hospital. I had promised I was not going to look at my breasts. He stood to my right. My godmother Matty Hallcroft stood to my left. He opened the compression bra, moved the gauzes out of the way and inspected the new breasts.

“It looks great,” he said.

Hallcroft smiled. “It does,’’ she reassured me.

I had to take a look for myself. I was not flat chested. I had two feminine curves. I looked down to my right. Instead of the nipple there were black stitches and a cut from the middle across to the right.

“You can see the line is very thin,” Hallcroft said.

I didn’t cry. I just lay there. It had been a fair trade: My breasts for my life.

When DerHagopian came to visit me, Suelzner stood by my side.

“She is very afraid, so afraid her body was shaking,” she said.

Suelzner was right. Terror had become my companion since cancer had invaded my life. Now DerHagopian said he had removed the cancer and reduced the risk of recurrence. I should have been relieved, but instead I was filled with fear.

DerHagopian had found cancer in my lymph nodes. I was afraid the chemo had not stopped it from spreading to other parts of my body. I was afraid that the radiation, which I would likely undergo after healing from the surgery, was destined to complicate my reconstruction. I was afraid of pain.

I packed my fears away, said goodbye to nurse Suelzner in tears, and left the hospital in a wheelchair.

At home mirrors forced me to look at what had become of me. I had already lost my hair during chemo. Not having the volume on my breasts made me look bulky. The woman looking back at me was not a beautiful woman. She was a woman in pain, who was full of hope.

I told myself the pain would subside. My hair would grow again. My ability to exercise would return. My breasts would look like breasts again. And I knew this because breast cancer survivors had told me so.

DerHagopian would give the pathology report to my oncologist Dr. Marc E. Lippman, the chairman of the University of Miami’s department of medicine. He would decide the next step.

“I don’t think you will be needing any more chemo,” said DerHagopian. I sure hope he is right.

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