PUMP IT!: My Connection with Angelina Jolie

Well, I´m sure a lot of you read last week about Ms. Jolie´s decision to have a preventative double mastectomy because she tested positive for the genetic mutation, BRCA1. The test indicated that she had an 87% risk of having breast cancer in the future. After reading the article about her decision on my beloved time-wasting internet site, people.com, I had many mixed emotions and reactions.
First, I was surprised that she managed to keep this a secret for 4 months given that she´s one of the most photographed women in the world. Secondly, I was mildly happy and relieved to hear that I had more in common with the world´s sexiest woman than previously thought. I know, firsthand, what a nipple-scarred and deflated breast looks like and kind of chortled to myself at the thought of Brad Pitt having to help Angelina empty and measure the puss in her drainage wounds. And then it made me respect their relationship more, which annoyed me because I was always on Team Aniston. Any man who can look at his partner´s mastectomy wounds and smile at them and tell them they are beautiful, no matter what, is a true hero in my book. (I love you, Jon!!!) But the main emotion I felt was this inexplicable anger. All of the article titles said something like “So and so group or organization praises Angelina for making brave and heroic choice to have a preventative double mastectomy.” I´m sure that the thousands of women on my breast cancer app that have all had double mastectomies, singular mastectomies, lumpectomies… whatever, have never been praised so highly. And also, I know that, unlike the former Lara Croft, they had the operation because they were forced to, because they had CANCER, because they had no choice.
It´s funny, last week I was dead set on the idea of writing a book about my experiences with cancer, etc, and I started to do a bit of research into the viability of such a book. In order to write a good, credible breast cancer memoir I would need to find out a lot of information about the disease so that I got my facts straight. I began reading newspaper articles, watching Ted talks, engaging in online chatting with other patients, and searching for blogs written by other survivors. What I found out was that I definitely am not the only young woman with breast cancer who has written a blog. I´m not even the only young woman who survived stage four breast cancer with a blog. At first this realization made me annoyed because I was faced with the reality that I really had no reason or right to think that my story would be important enough to make other people want to read it. Unfortunately, there is nothing special about me, or my particular breast cancer story. And it also made me incredibly depressed. I wish I was the only 31 year old woman with stage four cancer of any kind, because then it would mean that other people didn´t have to go through what I´ve been through. The more I delved into the world of breast cancer, the more disheartened I became. I honestly don´t really want to spend my days researching statistics about the number of women diagnosed and the number of women who have relapsed and the different theories about why some women survive and why others don´t. Ugh… what a terribly unfair world we live in. I would certainly be a glutton for punishment if I chose to dive head first into the world of breast cancer. Sometimes I see women who post on breast cancer sites three or four times a day and I think, “Gosh. Don´t you have anything more uplifting to do with your time?”
For me, I simply cannot let breast cancer be my life. And so, for the most part, I have chosen to deal with my disease by doing my very best to ignore and forget about it whenever possible. It´s not possible all the time, of course; I do know I have to face reality from time to time. But, for me, I don´t think it´s so healthy to dwell on all the negative and awful things that happen in this painful world that we all belong to. I would rather try to focus on the good and make the most out of every day.
But sometimes breast cancer literally reaches up, slaps me across the face, and forces me to pay attention to it. Like the days that I have to go in to get my breast expander filled. So far I have been going once a week to the plastic surgeon where he injects 50 CC of saline solution through a needle and syringe into the side of my body where the expander tube is. Luckily the saline injection, itself, isn´t very painful. Mainly because I literally cannot feel anything on the side of my body…. It´s still totally numb. But, the sensation of the liquid pouring into the expander cavity is definitely a unique feeling. It´s like they are filling up a water balloon, except it´s inside my body. And then, unfortunately, it immediately becomes quite painful and sore. Currently they have put in 100 CC of liquid and I know originally they have talked about filling it up to 400 CC, so I am only ¼ of the way filled and already the skin seems to be stretched at capacity. It doesn´t look stretched out, it only feels it. It is as if someone took a hammer to my breast and beat it about for a few minutes and then inserted a heavy bowling ball. The weight of it is quite painful and I definitely have had back and neck pain as a result. Jon tried to massage my shoulders last week and could barely make the knots budge. I´m not saying I´m in the kind of pain where I cry out in my sleep, but it is a constant soreness and tenderness that I can probably only equate to the feeling of your milk coming in when you are pregnant. Not that I´ve ever felt that pain, but some women have described it to me and it seems similar. The breast does already look better and I have some intense perkiness and cleavage on the left side, which I hope diminishes with time, as it is way over-the-top compared to the natural one on the right. But mostly it just feels really uncomfortably tight and hard. I swear you could bounce bullets off of my left boob….
I think one thing that annoyed me so much about Angelina´s article was that I think it made it seem like other women could and should go out right now, get genetically tested, and scoop out their breast tissue. This suspicion of mine was confirmed in a NY Times article sent to me by a friend from work: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/20/no-easy-choices-on-breast-reconstruction/?ref=health. The article, itself, is very interesting, and definitely worth a read. But basically it reveals that breast reconstruction is not actually as easy and pleasant an experience as one may think. Many accidents, infections, and unpleasant results happen as a result of reconstruction. To put it bluntly, you really shouldn´t go through the procedure unless you absolutely have to… I can tell you from just a month of experience, my body will never feel remotely the same. My left breast may one day look relatively similar to the way it did before but it feels completely different. In addition, I know several people who´s implants tear or break, leading to more surgeries, etc. It would be astounding to me if my reconstruction went off without a hitch and looked amazing on the first go-round. Usually, breast reconstruction requires a lifetime of upkeep and potential health issues. Also, while I think it is a good idea for women whose families have a history of breast or ovarian cancer to get the genetic tasting for the BRCA gene, the procedure is prohibitively expensive for most women, and many insurance companies do not cover the testing as a result. We don´t all have access to the medical treatments and top-notch surgeons that Angelina´s billions provide.
In conclusion, I hope that people are smart and don´t run off to the doctor´s office to get their boobs removed just because a famous movie star did. And also, I hope those of you who know people who are forced to undergo mastectomies and breast reconstruction realize what a major undertaking it is. I can tell you, it´s not fun, and even though I may joke about my perky, fake booby in the future, I would definitely rather have my normal, bouncy, potentially saggy one back.

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  1. Katherine

    Have just returned from Hawaii with some women friends from our Breast cancer support group. We had a great time….there is life after all this !!! You are doing wonderfully and have a supportive partner….all will be good….best, Katherine.

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