I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy a year ago at the age of 34.
I was unprepared for how I'd feel about my body afterwards and how long it would take to heal.
I'm still learning to be easy with myself and accept support from people.
I had a double mastectomy a year ago after learning I had breast cancer at the age of 34. It was both a difficult choice, and an easy one — while it's a decision no one should have to make, it was the one that made the most sense for me.
I have the BRCA2 gene mutation, so I get preventive scans every year, which allowed me to catch the cancer early. My doctors told me that my surgery would likely remove all the cancer that was currently in my body — and it did. Getting a double mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy also greatly reduced my risk of recurrence.
The last year has been one of recovery, getting used to my body as it is now, and trying (often failing) to be easy on myself. Here's what I've learned in the first year after my surgery.
The cliché 'healing isn't linear' is a cliché for a reason
Though I roll my eyes whenever someone tells me that "healing isn't linear," the fact is, people say it because it's true. However annoying it is to hear, my progress with both the emotional and physical effects of my diagnosis and surgery has not exactly been smooth. It can be frustrating, but it's also important to understand that sometimes, setbacks can be part of the healing process. I'm trying to go easier on myself when I experience them.
As a result of my surgery, I've dealt with a painful complication called cording, which has resolved a few times through physical therapy and stretching only to flare up again. Because it's under-studied, they don't really know what causes it, which has caused a lot of anxiety for me.
I worry about causing stress to my body, because one thing we do know is that cording is related to the lymphatic system, which is a key player in immune function. My physical therapist extended the typical weight restriction of lifting no more than five to 10 pounds for a few weeks after surgery for an additional three months each time I had a flare-up. But even when I was cleared to start slowly lifting, I felt anxious about strength training again — it was hard for me to trust my body. It's taken me a long time to feel comfortable starting to exercise again, which was a big part of my life before my diagnosis, and not exercising much this past year has really affected my mental health.
I also still haven't fully processed that I had cancer at all or that I had it at such a young age. In many ways, I feel like I've aged at least five years over the last year. Everything happened so quickly, and I had to make decisions and then follow through; the stress of it all has taken a toll, and I haven't really spent time thinking about how I actually feel, something I know I'll need to contend with soon. But it feels like progress that I am slowly making room for the emotions that come up when I do look back on the last year.
You can't predict how you're going to feel about your body
I tried to prepare myself for surgery by reading as much as I could online and following accounts of people who'd had double mastectomies, both with and without reconstruction. Some of those people embraced their new chests immediately after surgery, and some talked about how they couldn't look themselves in the mirror for nearly a year afterward. Neither was true for me.
I feel mostly neutral about my body at this point, and don't really have any reaction to seeing myself in the mirror after a shower. Most of the time, I wear comfortable clothes to work from home and feel fine when wearing a T-shirt and leggings. I do have a hard time when I'm getting dressed to go out and I reach for an outfit I used to feel good in, and it looks different on me.
A lot of my clothing doesn't fit the same anymore, but I also haven't felt like shopping yet to see what makes me feel good to wear, so my closet is stuck in sort of a limbo space.
I'm also trying to remind myself that even if I'm still getting used to how my body looks and feels, my risk of cancer now is much lower than it was a year ago. By advocating for myself then, I gave myself a healthier future; now, I have more time to figure the rest out.
I remind myself to ask for support
One of my biggest flaws is pulling away from people I love when things get difficult. I tend to isolate myself out of the assumption that my emotions or experiences are a burden, and I definitely did that this year.
Because I was already feeling increased anxiety and depression, it became a bad cycle; I would tell myself that I wouldn't be fun to be around and say "no" to doing things, and then I'd feel lonely, which only contributed to the problem.
Of course, there are other obstacles involved when it comes to being social after a major health event. It can be hard to find the energy to leave the house while your body is recovering. It can also be difficult to connect when your head is in a totally different place and your friends lives are, for the most part, continuing on as usual. But it's important to remember that they care about you and want to see you, and that what you're dealing with is not a burden.
It's something I've been trying to remember as I'm starting to dig myself out of the funk I've been in. Accepting love and support — and even asking for it sometimes — is important and can only help you heal more quickly.
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