Here are a few things they don’t tell you about what it’s like post-mastectomy:
The Noise! To help the wound heal, and to prevent tissue necrosis, the whole breast area had to be kept warm to encourage blood vessels to grow. So a blanket of bubble wrap was placed around my chest and hot air was blown under this wrap by a machine called a Bair Hugger.
This machine sounded like a cross between a lawn-mower and a hair-dryer and was placed on the floor right next to my left ear. There was no way I could sleep with that din going off even though I had ear plugs, post-surgery anaesthesia haze and sleeping pills.
I had the Bair Hugger on 24/7 for about 3 days, which meant 3 sleepless days and nights. It was very hot and uncomfortable. The only thing that helped was playing music very loudly at top volume, to try to drown out the hair-dryer. I was very grateful for the private room. It made me wonder what a nightmare it must be if there was a wardful of women with mastectomies, all with Bair Huggers at full blast – it must sound like a hairdressing salon.
To add to the cacophony, my calves were wrapped in a pneumatic sequential leg compressor. This was another air-powered gizmo that squeezed each calf in turn before deflating, and was supposed to help prevent blood clots from forming. This one felt weird – like two hands taking it in turns to squeeze my calves. The sound it made was like a steam engine in the distance (whoosh … shush … whoosh … shush). It was on pretty much 24/7 when I was in bed.
Add the leg compressor to the Bair Hugger, and you can understand why I couldn’t get any sleep. Or move. I could not turn onto my side, I had to sleep flat on my back.
The first time I was allowed out of bed was a huge production with equipment being detached and trundled all over the place, and then being re-attached whenever I was in bed. I can see why people can’t wait to get out of hospital – they’re not exactly designed for a peaceful night’s sleep!
A visitor stated the obvious when she said that it was the closest she had come to the modern day version of the Medieval Torture Rack – and I could only agree!
The Tightness: The first thing I was conscious of when I came out of the anaesthetic was how tight my chest felt. I literally gasped for air. I couldn’t breathe.
I thought that there was a tight bandage around my chest impeding my breathing – I’d read on some US cancer blogs that patients wake up with a huge Ace bandage around their breasts. But there was no bandage, just some dressings, blood stains, disinfectant and Frankenstein-looking staples and stitches.
It turned out that the tightness was caused by the implant. The implant had been placed under my pectoral muscle. Even though it was nearly the smallest-size implant, the chest muscle is not designed to have something shoved under it at short notice. My chest was desperately trying to stretch to accommodate this rock. It felt so much heavier than my other breast. It felt unreal. I almost asked for it to be taken out.
I strained to take a normal breath. There was no way I could sleep on the side of the implant, and it was too uncomfortable for me to turn onto the other side. So I tossed and turned and settled for sleeping on my back. Even that had its problems. For weeks afterwards, whenever I was in bed, I had to lie flat on my back, propped up by pillows under my chest and my knees, in a V-shape, because my chest muscles were still too tight to accommodate the implant comfortably.
And for weeks afterwards I would wake up in the middle of the night suddenly gasping for air, because I’d stopped breathing from the tightness. I never got a good night’s sleep.
Even now, months after, I still feel the tightness of the implant against my chest, and the friction and this weird sucky, itchy sensation, especially in the morning [the surgeon said it was the two surfaces trying to form a sympathetic connection].
But the breast does look like a … breast. The surgeon had done an amazing job.
The nausea: I never thought I would be sick from the general anaesthetic because I have a cast iron stomach, but I was.
In the middle of the night, I woke up, drank some coconut water and then thought: oh-oh, my tummy doesn’t like that.
I looked for something to throw up in, while trying to stop heaving. I buzzed the nurse, and told them I was going to be sick.
The nurse told me to take long deep breaths as that would stop the sickness.
I opened my mouth and took a deep breath. Bad mistake. The coconut water came up and went everywhere, even my hair, like some sort of new age hair styling goop.
To this day I cannot drink coconut water as it brings me straight back to that night post-mastectomy.
The Bleeding: Because I was so skinny, I didn’t have a cushion of fat between the skin and muscle. During surgery, whenever the surgeon cut, he sliced into blood vessels rather than fat, and I lost about 750ml of blood.
So, ladies … forget fitness and staying trim, if you are going to have surgery, put on the weight and don’t worry about the wobbly bits. They could save your life.
Because I’d lost so much blood, I was put on iron supplements post-surgery to build up the red blood cells. My personal opinion is that that was a mistake. Iron stimulates cancer cells to grow. I should not have taken those iron supplements. The best solution would have been a transfusion from a blood relative, but that was not an option. So please learn from my experiences. Question whether it’s necessary to have iron supplements or not and see if you can get it from diet alone.
The Pain: actually, the pain was surprisingly tolerable. This was the one bit I had been dreading – everyone I spoke to told me a different story about their experience of pain. So I told the surgeon to dope me up and I was looking forward to my first legal high. Alas, he didn’t. Apparently there are very few nerves in the breast especially once it’s been cored. Most of the pain I had was soreness, and that was controlled by 4-hourly doses of paracetamol, ibuprofen and codeine. That’s all I was given by the hospital. No morphine. No Tramadol. I was very good about taking the painkillers because I’m chicken about pain, and I’d heard that it was easier to prevent the pain, than to wait for it to build up and try to subdue it.
It was uncomfortable and sore to cough or take a deep breath. The one time I sneezed I ended up bent double, clutching my chest because of the sudden pain, and swearing like a trooper. This happened in the corridor of the hospital (which by the way, was a Catholic hospital), and right next to a statue of a disapproving-looking saint!
Update 21 September 2014 – By the way, if you want to see photos of a mastectomy, I’ve found this fantastic site by a breast cancer patient who has documented her mastectomy:
WARNING – GRUESOME PHOTOS