*Noob- A combination of the words “new” and “boob”
Before I was scheduled for surgery–a modified radical mastectomy with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction— I never understood why people thought surgery was a big deal. You go to sleep, wake up, take a bunch of pain meds, and it’s done, I thought. No biggie.
It wasn’t long after my April 17 surgery was inked on the calendar that I understood. I pictured myself being carved up like a turkey and the amount of trauma resulting from something so unnatural was mind-boggling.
On the morning of my surgery, my husband and I got up at 4:15 a.m. so we could be at MGH by the 5:30 surgery check-in time. When we arrived, TV vans, armed police, and National Guard members were stationed out front since it was only two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, which didn’t help the anxiety I had been dealing with for days.
In fact, I had been a wreck leading up to surgery. I tried my best to keep calm and most of the time I did, but my surgery was so major that I worried and worried about the recovery, the pain, and the side effects.
Now that it’s almost two weeks post-surgery, I can tell you that despite the pain I’ve had and the long recovery I face, I have overwhelmingly felt immense gratitude toward my surgeons, nurses, family, and friends.
From the time my tumor was measured (9 cm, aka HUGE) and the doctors saw that cancer had made its way into my lymph nodes, a modified radical mastectomy was a given. No matter what, they would have to remove all the breast tissue from my left breast and take some neighboring lymph nodes, too.
What was not a given was reconstruction. After a mastectomy, you can choose to either have breast reconstruction or not. And if you opt to get it, there are so many options that it takes serious research to figure out what’s best.
Since I go to MGH, one of the best hospitals in the US, I knew DIEP reconstruction, a cutting-edge and highly technical surgery, was an option. During the DIEP procedure, a plastic surgeon who specializes in microsurgery takes a flap of tissue and fat from your abdomen and attaches it to the blood supply in the breast area, resulting in a breast mound made from your own tissue. As an added bonus, you essentially get a tummy tuck in the process after all that tissue and fat is removed. Can I get a “WOOT WOOT!”?
Once I decided on the procedure, finding the right plastic surgeon proved harder than I envisioned. My first consultation was with a doctor I’ll refer to as “Dr. Meow.”
One of the first things Dr. Meow told me to do when he came into the room was take off my hospital gown so he could take a picture of my breasts for his portfolio. When I told him I wanted the DIEP procedure, he told me he wouldn’t do it because his failure rate was something like 1.2 percent (note: this number is from my memory so could be incorrect but it was somewhere in that ballpark) while his failure rate for other procedures was a half-percentage point to full percentage point less. Dr. Meow was steering me toward a silicone implant, which I absolutely did not want because of the many stories of discomfort and complications I had read, and he also wanted me to know how important he was. I heard about the client who comes all the way from Long Island to get his services. Dr. Meow said that he was the doctor “who other plastic surgeons’ wives go to when they need work.”
I left that meeting unsettled and disappointed and that night I felt sad and hopeless. I wasn’t sure what to do since my surgery was a mere three weeks away. But the next morning, I called my wonderful and amazing breast surgeon, Michelle Specht–the doctor who does the actual mastectomy–and within a few hours she had me set up with a new plastic surgeon and a new surgery date.
The new plastic surgeon, Jonathan Winograd, was the complete opposite of Dr. Meow. He was funny, down-to-earth, and totally on board with the DIEP. He’s also the head of microsurgery at MGH so I knew I was in good hands.
By the morning of April 17, my dream team of surgeons, Dr. Specht and Dr. Winograd, had come up with a plan. Dr. Specht would do a nipple-sparing, skin-sparing mastectomy and Dr. Winograd would work his DIEP magic. My surgery took 9.5 hours with the majority of the time spent on reconstruction, and the doctors were able to do exactly as they planned.
The reason I feel so much gratitude toward my surgeons is because they were able to use innovative and cutting-edge techniques that significantly lessen the psychological impacts of a mastectomy. I had read that many women go through a grieving process when they lose a breast. I can tell you I have felt no grief, and I can tell you that it’s because of my surgeons.
When Dr. Specht performed a skin-sparing, nipple-sparing mastectomy, she took out all the breast tissue and 11 neighboring lymph nodes but left the outside of my breast completely in-tact. Dr. Winograd was then able to follow up her work by filling the space with my own tissue– the DIEP flap–which means I have a new breast that feels natural and will never need additional work unless I want it cosmetically touched up. I have only one small incision that starts on the inside of my breast and radiates toward my nipple. Oh, and I have a TUMMY TUCK! As someone who had a Buddha belly even BEFORE I had kids, I can tell you that this part is ah-frickin-mazing.
After surgery, the nurses at MGH were fantastic. Family and friends visited. My mom took awesome care of my kids.
It’s been a bit painful and I still have several weeks of limited activity, but I am filled with gratitude for all the awesome people who have helped me through this surgery. And I am especially grateful for my awesome noob.