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"I knew having my breast back would make me feel better about myself"

The day before I was due to go into hospital for a breast reconstruction after having a mastectomy last year, I flew home from London, having attended a 50th birthday party. I had butterflies in my tummy at the thought of the impending operation.

What if I ended up with a chest like Jordan? What if the anaesthetist gave me too much anaesthetic and I didn't come round? What if the surgeon pierced my lung during the operation?

All these questions circled around my head as we started our descent into Dublin Airport. Then, just as we were coming in to land, the pilot gunned the engines, sharply lifted the nose of the plane and took off again. All the passengers went 'oooh'. I crossed myself. After what seemed like an age, the pilot came on and explained the reason he had to abort the landing was because there was a plane still on the runway.

Suffice to say, my nerves were completely shot by the time I arrived at the hospital to undergo a Latissimus Dorsi flap reconstruction that afternoon. This surgery involves taking muscle and skin from the upper back, and, along with an implant, reconstructing the breast. Because the reconstructed breast would end up near to a C cup, my underwhelming AA right breast would also need an implant to balance me. (There is an upside to everything.)

I didn't go into this operation lightly. Having consulted reconstructive surgeon Nadeem Ajmal, he recommended the Latissimus Dorsi as being the most suitable for me as I didn't have enough fat on my stomach for the preferred Diep Flap surgery. He made sure I knew of the cons as well as the pros.

The reconstructed breast would be slightly higher than the other but should drop over a period of three months. As the skin on the back is different to the skin on the chest, the breast can end up looking like a patchwork quilt (but would look okay in clothes). Sometimes the implants don't take properly and may have to be taken out and redone. I went to see my breast care nurse, Nadine Peake, in Beaumont Hospital to talk things through. Nadine showed me pictures of women who had the procedure and it was a relief to see that, while the breasts can look different, they were not completely alien to each other.

I also contacted the Irish Cancer Society and they put me in touch with women who had undergone the Latissimus Dorsi procedure. It was heartening to hear that not one of these women regretted going through the operation.

"Is it painful?" I asked each of them.

"Some," said one.

"A little," said another. Women are masters of understatement.

After checking in at the hospital, a nurse took my blood pressure. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

"To be honest, I'm terrified and I'm wondering what I'm doing here," I replied.

She told me not to worry, that every single woman that had undergone a breast reconstruction felt exactly the same. "You didn't have any choice with the mastectomy. Your breast had to come off but, with a reconstruction, it's your choice to get it done and you probably feel a little uneasy about it."

She was right. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I couldn't wait to get my breast off. I would have stapled myself to the front door of the hospital if I thought I could get admitted any quicker. This time, though, I didn't need to have surgery. I could easily leave well enough alone. Some people even said it to me: "Why would you want to put yourself through it? I hear it's quite a painful operation," they asked.

I replied by saying: "Unless you've had a mastectomy, you wouldn't understand." That put an end to that conversation.

I was greeted outside the theatre by Nadeem. He marked me up with a black marker before I went in.

"Any questions?" he asked.

"Just don't make me too big!" I bawled.

"You don't have to have this operation if you don't want to."

"I want it. I just don't want airbags."

"You'll be fine," he smiled.

I lay on the table. Hamid, the anaesthetist informed me that soon I would feel sleepy. I remembered something my son said to me that morning. "Don't die on the operating table, Mum." No pressure then.

I woke up five hours later feeling as if I had been run over by a truck and completely out of it. After this I succumbed to severe bouts of nausea, which is a side effect of morphine, and proceeded to moan my way through the night.



compression

To make things worse, I was trussed up like a chicken in a medical compression bra that was so tight it would make a straitjacket feel comfortable.

The next day Nadeem arrived to check up on his handiwork. A nurse had already told me that he was pleased with the way the operation had gone. She helped me open the zip of the bra. I took a deep breath and looked down.

I almost burst into tears with relief. Though I was swathed in bandages, I could see the formation of the reconstructed breast. It was like a little bald head and, to me, it looked absolutely perfect.

"The reconstructed breast is higher than the other but it should fall," said Nadeem.

Four weeks on and the new breast has already started to settle. I'm crisscrossed with scars with a long scar across my back but these will fade in time. My new breast looks odd as I have no nipple. One will be attached in a couple of months.

Was it a painful operation? Yes, but what surgery isn't. Was it worth it? I knew having my breast back would make me feel better about myself, but I underestimated just how good that feeling would be.

So the answer is yes -- absolutely!


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