Falling in Love with Me

…This post cancer life is so new and different and, in a way, disconnected from a lot of what I once was. It is by all accounts a rebirth.

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything.  In case you were wondering, I haven’t stopped writing, haven’t stopped pouring my soul out on cyber paper.  I’m a writer and that’s what I do and I love it.   But I took a break from the “public” blog while I healed from my recent (and hopefully final) surgery because to be honest, I didn’t know what to say to all of you.  Why? Well, simply put, I was having a hard time understanding myself, my new and cancer-free self!  I needed to put the mental burn time in, a concerted effort to introduce the old me to the new me and try and make some sense of it all.   

But it’s been really hard.  Harder than I thought it would be and that’s been humbling. 

I have a great husband, great kids, great friends, great church, a truly great life, and yet the best way I can describe my life right now is that it is not yet my own.  It’s like it’s a bunch of pieces of jagged glass that do not fit together, that seemingly have no other purpose other than to tease me that my life has always been and will always be on the brink of fragility. 

This post cancer life is so new and different and, in a way, disconnected from a lot of what I once was.  It is by all accounts a rebirth.

Fall dawns in San Diego the end of August and with it, a sort of changing of the guard.  Don’t laugh, I know the calendar says Fall isn’t until mid-September, and yes, it’s true our beaches in August are still packed with plenty of sunburned tourists.   But it’s also true that by the end of August, although the days are still warm, downright hot actually, the nights are rather crisp and cool, dropping a good twenty degrees from the daily highs.  This drop-in temperature somehow serves as a signal to us California natives that it’s perfectly fine to start burning pumpkin spice candles, adding a fleece throw to the back of the sofa and warming our hands around a cup of homemade soup while watching the promos for Hallmark Channels’ Christmas Countdown.  It also signals the beginning of apple picking season, a sort of frenzied time that despite San Diego being a fresh fruit capital, we gather the troops and parade up the mountain tops to pay exorbitant prices for the opportunity to pick our own apples. 

It’s just the kind of kitschy juxtaposition that makes San Diego a great place to live. 

So, it was in the spirit of all things Fall, that my husband, eldest son and I, dressed in shorts and tank tops and oiled with sunscreen, crammed into my Volkswagen convertible and made the two hour trek up to the mountain town of Oak Glen on the 1st day of apple picking season.

It was also an activity I felt would help me cope with the stress of awaiting the final surgery I was having in September to remove my reconstructive implants.  The implants I felt, although there was no medical consensus, were at the root cause of the continued debilitating physical issues I had been having over the past three years.   

It was hot.  Eighty five degrees to be exact and with the top down on our convertible, I could feel the sun baking my skin, burning it as we wound our way up the mountain side.  I began to doubt myself.  “What a stupid idea Anne.”  “It’s freaking August, you should be at the beach.”

I remember silently praying that the trip wouldn’t be a bust.  But God it was so hot.

We pulled up alongside the orchard and the scenery was breathtaking.  Trees of all shapes and sizes and colors.   Scents of pumpkin and apple and something that we discovered was berry, filled the air.  There was the sound of a folk band, voices in harmony blended seamlessly with the strum of guitar and bow fiddle.   The sun was still blazing, but the sky was so blue and the surrounding mountains were still lush and green.  

Is this what heaven is like?

The three of us, my husband, my son and I, walked down a lane lined with blackberry bushes.  Off to the left was a little stand and a friendly man with a careworn face dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt, work boots and a cowboy hat who greeted us.  

“Hello folks, welcome, welcome!”

This must be what heaven is like!

The man with the cowboy hat explained to us the process of how to pick the apples, the trees available for picking would have yellow ribbons on them and there were several varieties.  The man handed us some bags to hold our pickings.   We would pay for what we picked on the way out.  There was a two-bag minimum and the price was steep, but the happiness that filled me was knowing no bounds.

With instructions and our bags, the three of us walked down the trail and around some very cute out buildings that had been carefully restored to look like a western town that had seen better days.   I felt an immediate connection to it. 

Life is like that, somedays shiny, other days broken, but always we push on.

Around the bend we entered the orchard.   It took a bit to find the trees we could pick from and we decided to split up so that we could pick a variety of apples.

One particular apple tree caught my eye.  This tree, one among the hundreds on the mountain side, had been picked clean on the exterior, but the interior branches were bulging with bright, red and green colored apples, and it reminded me of a mother holding her young to her bosom.

I studied the tree.  It seemed to be calling to me.

“Won’t you please come closer and tell me your secrets.  I promise I’ll listen to what is on your heart and then, as my gift to you, I’ll give mine…the fruit of my womb.”

I drew nearer, extended my arm as far as it would into the center of the tree and my hand enclosed around an apple and I gave it a tug.  But it’s stem held on tight, as if it did not want to go with me.  I tried again, tugging and pulling and as I was bracing my leg against the trunk of the tree for more leverage, I looked down and there underneath the canopy of that apple tree were literally hundreds of discarded apples in various stages of decay.  Pitted apples. Pockmarked apples.  Apples with brown holes.  Worms?  I picked several up and I didn’t find any worms.  But the pile of discarded apples was unusual, huge in fact and so out of character for what lay underneath the other apple trees around it.  Out of the blue a thought popped into my head:

“Is this apple tree holding on to its’ final offering because it is afraid to shed its’ old self, to make way for the new.”

What the???   Where did that thought come from? Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew the answer to that question.

Because the tree was me. 

The me that had shed so much of what was broken in me physically over the past three years was there on the ground in the form of all of those discarded apples.  But the me that held onto the memory of all that I was pre-cancer, my life before all of the drama, was there in the form of that tree holding on for dear life, afraid to give up the last of all that it was…of all that I am.  

Isaiah 41:10. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

All at once it seemed too much to ponder, too painful, too sad, this me that I once was and this me that I so desperately wanted to figure out, so I quickly joined my husband and son and focused on filling our bags full of apples of every sort.   We laughed and laughed and soon my momentary sadness was forgotten.  Bags full and caught up in the joy of the experience, we decided to also pick some blackberries. 

More money of course, and it was darn hot out and we were all sweating buckets, but something about the whole experience was having a cathartic effect on not only me, but on my husband and son, and in that unity my spirits soared.

It was as if God was saying to me, “I’ve got you Anne, I won’t let you go.”

So, baskets in hand we went off in search of blackberries.  There was one section of the orchard that had a kind of maze-like structure with groomed blackberry bushes, but there was another section, a less structured section, with tall, craggy bushes full of thorny bramble. 

You can guess which ones called to us.

Anyhow, without thinking, I reached in to said bush and instantly my hand was full of juicy berries and equally full of tiny, microscopic thorns.   I won’t lie to you, those tiny thorns hurt! But I couldn’t stop myself from reaching in again.

Further and further and further into the brambles my hand automatically went. 

“Oh, I see you.   I see you hiding your beautiful berries way back there in the dark recesses of all that you are.   Don’t worry, I know you are scared of me, but you know what, I’m scared of you too!   So, let’s be scared together.”

My stinging hands, black from the berry juice filled basket after basket.  Bags of apples lay at my feet. Enough for a pies and syrup and fruit pancakes and…I had to stop before the money ran out!  

Conveniently across from the blackberry bush there was a copse of trees, diverse in their variety, but similar in their leaves, which were all in various stages of color transition.  Some were evergreen, some a sort of mottled green-yellow, a reminder of the dry, desert climate that is Southern California and some were the palate that I most associate with fall: deep brown, burgundy, golden yellow and burnt orange.  It was this latter colored tree that, while casually picking the blackberry thorns out of my fingertips, that seemed to speak to me.   

The trunk of the tree was oddly shaped.   Instead of the typical circular base that begins wide at the bottom and then gradually tapers skyward, this tree’s base was extra wide, distorted in proportion, to the rest of the trunk.   It was as if it had taken a long pause before deciding that yes, it wanted to continue its’ journey skyward as a tree.

Moments of pause and reflection are good in our life journey.  Sometimes they are planned, sometimes they aren’t, but pausing never the less affords us the time and opportunity to access if we are headed in the right direction. 

Cancer for me was like that.   An unplanned pause that pushed me to reflect on all that was my life and what I wanted to carry with me forward in the journey, post cancer.   Now what exactly is that?

I noticed that the skin of the tree trunk was punctuated (every so often) with circular, rough-edged knots.  A few of the knots were superficial, their middles slightly grainy in texture, not much more than a fleshy surface wound.  Others of the knots, were deep, dark and cavernous.  Their center void indeterminant to the naked eye, as if mirroring infinity.      

As humans we share a common guarantee that our lives will be filled with all sorts of knots, anxious moments, that tear at our core, causing us to momentarily bury deep within ourselves to wait out the storm.

But in the past few years I’ve come to recognize that these sorts of troubles, while important and valuable in my personal growth, are more or less equal to butterflies in the tummy.  That quick quiver, that reminds me of just how fragile my life really is. 

The greater task for me is to make peace with the larger knots.  Those that seem ridged and permanently affixed to my story, no matter how hard I struggle to rid myself of them.  Would they disappear if I just “let them fall away?”   

I guess it is true that no matter what our battles some memories and scars are fleeting, parked for a bit waiting out the passage of time, while others remain, glaring, blatant and perfectly comfortable altering our person, our existence.  

My person.  My existence.

So, as I continued to pick out the last of the thorns, I wondered to myself:

What would happen if I just let go of the worry and just let myself fall into my new life?

But I don’t like letting go.  I don’t like falling.

The sporadic clumps of gnarled star-like bouquets affixed to the trees branches that stood before me in shades of orange, gold and brown and burgundy were stunning in the bright August sky, startling actually against the green of what is the norm for much of the California landscape and they should have made me happy.   But it was this difference, this odd combination of brilliance in the face of death that gave me pause.  Something that oddly felt like resentment welled up inside me.

“There you are Anne in all your Fall glory.  Wow, you look so great for all you’ve been through!” Should I look old and haggard?  Is that a choice I can honestly make and still be accepted? Would I accept myself as less than what I think I should be?

“Bright, Bold, Beautiful! What tremendous energy you radiate Anne!” What if I told you there are times that I feel void inside, would you run? What if I told you there are days when I’m barely hanging on? What if I told you that I’m afraid?

“Anne, how have you survived cancer and all of the other health issues you have been through with such a positive attitude?  Well, you know beautiful, I couldn’t do it.  I don’t have the strength you have.” There are days, lots of days that I don’t have strength either, did you know that?  Do you even want to know?  More importantly, do I want to know?

“Anne dear, what you have accomplished is nothing short of an inspiration.” I’m nothing special. I’m not.  I’m just as regular as this old tree. And I didn’t do anything spectacular.  I fought cancer, as do millions of other people each and every day, by putting on my game face and working my ass off to stay in the game.  Simply put, if I had a choice about my place in this world, and I was blessed to be given one, time and time and time again, I wasn’t ready to give up my earthly role, whatever the hell that is.   It isn’t any more complicated than that.

Or is it?     

As I stood staring at that gnarled, old, broken down tree, almost forty months of voices full of compliments and encouragement and every heartfelt sentiment filled my head. 

Sometimes I do not feel worthy of what should be a joyful noise as I get on with my life.  Instead my head is filled with a cacophony of disconnected notes, rising up into the sky to reveal, leaves that, upon closer inspection, are black at the tips, reminding me of myself, my fragility, a falling star, my brilliance slowly being extinguished as it streaks across the nighttime sky.   As I said, I am afraid.  

Hands still blue, and free of thorns, I felt tears well in my eyes as they travelled up to the crown of the tree, I noticed that many of the upper branches were denuded of any leaves, their fate sealed by the wind and their proximity to the heavens.  

There they sit, under the watchful eye of God and man, raw, naked, completely exposed.  As do I.  As do we all.

I suddenly felt a kinship with these stripped branches of this craggy, old tree.   These branches, the once proud harbingers of birds, and bugs and life.  How strange it must feel to hold such vast secrets within the warmth of limb and leaf only to have them stolen by the breeze, and left a barren landscape, void of what was once bright and beautiful and appreciated.   I understand.  

My once normal life has been bowed under the weight of its’ burden.  My limbs snapped under the pressure of accepting something for which I had no root cause.  Nothing I could say, “Well, that’s why I got cancer?” 

I’ve tried to remain colorful and brilliant and to hang on to every thread of what was good about my life prior to cancer, but the true story is that underneath my canopy, where my once bright leaves stood shimmering in all of their glory, they are now withered and crumbled, their dust scattered on the ground, just like those discarded apples and I don’t know what it all means, this transition.

I feel like I am someone I don’t know yet.  And that’s o.k. because God will continue to show me the way.  I understand why it was important for me on this extremely hot day to be standing here in the middle of an orchard with my family, hands stinging from bramble, nature’s bounty at my feet, learning to fall in love with me.  

The new me.

So, I stand here, a tree, naked of its’ leaves, branches askew, trunk soft and swollen under the weight of its’ burden, wondering what to do next. 

I know people will continue to come up to me and tell me how great I look.  What tremendous energy I radiate…

What an inspiration I am.   I love them for it. 

I’m still learning what I feel about this me that is still revealing itself.    

But I promise to keep trying to figure it out.   

It may take a little longer.  And that’s o.k. because I am not alone in my journey.

With God’s help, I’m slowly falling in love with me.  

PositivelyAnne

As always, thank you dear readers for liking and following my blog. Feel free to share with friends and family, those you feel could benefit.

TOGETHER WE CAN LIFT EACH OTHER UP!

No More Doubts!

Heading into my second week, post bi-lateral breast implant “explant” surgery, I’ve discovered that recovery, whatever we are recovering from, in my case recovering from yet another major surgery associated with my breast cancer journey, takes an enormous amount of faith in an outcome that is at the mercy of a lot of things beyond our individual control.

For someone like me, who likes their life rather tidy and orderly, it is a difficult thing to have to ride a roller coaster of pain, emotions, and uncertainty in yet another surgical recovery, and it becomes even more complicated when “doubt” creeps in to cast a shadow on what has, in essence, been a text book recovery for me so far.  

I want to talk about my “doubt” because it has little do with recovering from an actual surgical procedure.   It’s more complex than that. 

My “doubt” has never stemmed from a decision to have a particular surgery, no matter the complications.  Nor has my “doubt” ever been due to a lack of trust in my surgical team’s competence.  I have been blessed with the best and brightest the medical community has to offer in every single instance.  Lastly, and most importantly, my “doubt” has never been about a lack of faith that God will help me or that He will put others in my life to help me.  My eyes have been opened to the miracle of God’s grace time and time again in each of my surgical journeys and in all aspects of my life, so I don’t for a moment doubt God’s existence in my life.

But I’ve noticed a pattern of “doubt” that manifests within me during each surgical recovery, that instead of just embracing these things as my truth, I spend an awful lot of time questioning God as to whether or not I am worthy of continuing to being blessed with yet another chance at this crazy life of mine.

Despite my faith in God, I’ve discovered that my “doubt” and “worthiness” over receipt of God’s amazing grace, time and time again, weighs on me because I am very aware that there are so many people out there suffering all sorts of ailments who have not been equally blessed.   

And the fact remains, that regardless of being a good person, many people do not have the opportunities that I have had, with access to the best in healthcare, a loving and supportive caregiver in my husband, the best support team in my kids, friends, church and extended family, and all sorts of strangers, who, along the way, have blessed me over and over again and helped me quickly get back on my feet.  

So, my “doubt” centers a lot around, “Why me?”   What is so special about me that I should be able to test the surgical hands of fate time and time again and recover in a way that affords me the opportunity to get back to life rather quickly and share that story with others, when so many others are not able to do so?

In the quiet of the night, I lie awake and ponder this question and maybe because this was surgery number seventeen, I’m pondering it now a bit more.   I mean it’s quite reasonable when you are coming close to running out of fingers and toes to count your surgeries on, that questioning God about how much longer this gravy train is going to last is a rather human thing to do, right?

Then again, I wonder if in questioning God, I seem ungrateful?

I am very grateful.  Grateful for each new day and I don’t take for granted anything about being able to wake up and go to sleep and wake up again.   There is a satisfaction and peace that comes with knowing that’s possible for me and yet, the “doubt” comes.  

Although I am grateful, I feel “unworthy” of all that has been afforded me and my mind races trying to pinpoint the exact moment when God said,

“Here is Anne, someone worthy of saving, over and over and over again.”  

I have been blessed to live a privileged life and I know it.  But I am also keenly aware that I’ve worked hard for it and continue to work hard for it.  It hasn’t always been easy and trust me, after seventeen surgeries, I don’t think anyone will have a problem with me saying that I’ve grown weary of hospital gowns and handsome anesthesiologists and even medical miracles. 

I’m kind of over the excitement of the operating room, grateful as I am for it.

As I was pondering what I would say in my blog, a thought came to me last night that maybe I’m looking at this whole thing the wrong way.   I mean a lot of times when life seems complex, God points us to the fact that things really aren’t as complicated as we humans tend to make it, so, maybe that’s the case in this instance as well?

Maybe, my health journey and my role in sharing my journey, including discovering my possible, is not rooted in the details of my own personal success stories? 

Maybe it has nothing to do with my start or my finish.  My beginning, my middle, my end.   

Could it be that it is as simple as one human planting positive seeds of faith by openly sharing their story of being a broken, vulnerable human with other broken, vulnerable human beings?

Is it plausible that God is using my journey, including my “doubts”, my wrong turns, my fears of “unworthiness” and lack of value and the sharing of the crosses that I bear, to somehow allow others to see more clearly through their own doubts, and fears, giving them the courage to share their own stories of hope in the face of despair?

“Here is Anne, someone I am using on earth to tell her story so that others may find happiness and joy in their own journey of discovery.”

I had a text from a friend this past week that, and the more I think about it, confirmed this theory.   She had shared my blog from last week with a family member who was struggling with her own breast implant reconstruction and my friend shared the response text from the family member with me.  I will leave the contents of it private except to say that the text was not about the further sharing of details of this person’s health issues, or exchanging medical advice, or about wanting any sort of resolution for this individual.  Instead, the text simply shared that my words brought this person comfort.   That my words would be shared by this person with other individuals they knew when the time was right and the circle of comfort would continue because I had chosen to share my journey in a public way.

That’s powerful and humbling and huge. 

 No wonder I feel a bit unworthy of it all!

But there it is.   This must be how God is using me.   Using my situation, every surgery, every stumble in my recovery, every scary monster that I have faced in the past few years to encourage me to help others to put one foot in front of the other and fight. 

I really do need to accept this challenge from God and move on from my “doubts.”

An image of human hands holding human hands comes to mind.  Each individual hand cold, full of doubts, and fears and feelings of unworthiness.  But join these hands together and suddenly where once flesh was cold, there is now warmth.   The warmth of human kindness.  God’s gift to us.

A circle of comfort!

I am excited to share this warmth with my readers, with anyone in need.  I am excited that though I could have done without seventeen surgeries, if this is what it takes to help me find my path, my possible, my voice in the world, and in doing so, I help others,  then God has served me well. 

I can only hope I remain a worthy, humble servant.  No more doubts! 

Won’t you join me and share your story too?!!!

PositivelyAnne

Bringing Back Me

Once I was lost…but now I’m found…was blind, but now I see….
-Amazing Grace

It’s a strange thing when life hands you curve balls you think you can handle and then come to find out that no matter the fortress of positivity you have built around yourself; no matter how much you have stacked the deck in favor of hope verses despair, that sometimes, you just have to give in to the fact that you are human and your life story isn’t one hundred percent yours to control.

I’ve been coming to terms with this new narrative since this past April, when after another reconstructive surgery to remove and replace (AGAIN), a contracted breast implant and then a subsequent lymphedema diagnosis, I was still in a whole lot of pain in my chest region and frankly, most of the time I felt like a truck had run over me. In addition, I was emotionally drained and felt the rock of my faith crumbling.

My happy go-lucky self had become a sort of hollow shell. You know, the kind of shell that covers a piece of candy…the chocolate rich and decadent, but the inside is a concoction of everything you hate.

For a positivity blogger, that’s a death nail and something I needed to get my mind around and around pretty quickly, because as I’ve said all along, I do not like to wallow in negative space, not ever!   At first, I focused on working on a children’s book my friend and I are putting together.  But I couldn’t focus on that either.  I felt absolutely zero joy…and that was not acceptable to me, if only for the reason that the book is too damn good and deserves a joyful launch. I also deleted my Instagram where I was posting daily positivity photos.  I felt like a phony pumping positive photos into the internet stratosphere, when I was feeling so negative about life and myself.  My camera lens no longer automatically pointed to magical images of positivity.  Words of wisdom no longer popped automatically in my head. 

I felt, well, I felt kind of dead inside.

So, I decided to take a break from blogging and writing and spent my time instead on a quest to find out what the hell was wrong with me. 

Now a whole lot of people, and I mean a whole lot of experienced medical professionals, had told me over and over again that my body had been through a lot and it was going to take time to recover.   Cancer, the bi-lateral mastectomy, colon resection, gall bladder removal, blocked bile duct repair, hernia repair and hysterectomy, in addition to radiation and reconstruction, not once, twice, but three times, all, were equally capable of taking a major toll on me.   It was normal to feel tired, anxious, impatient, wanting for life to go back to as it once was.   I had things to do, places to go, this was all so inconvenient.

“You need time to heal Anne,” they would say. “Each surgery is like setting the clock back in your recovery process and you aren’t being fair to yourself expecting things to move so quickly.”

But they had moved quickly for me and that was the puzzle.   The physical things that needed fixing I could get my mind around and seriously, those things, while not all easy to recover from, seemed for the most part, at least manageable.    You prep for surgery, you have surgery, you are given a list of things to do and not to do in recovery, you obey the list and poof, in a matter of months, sometimes sooner, you are on your way, to a less dysfunctional body.  I bounced back from each surgery like a rubber ball…over and over I’d take a pounding and I just kept bouncing.

But I had had a lot of surgeries by anyone’s standard, sixteen in 36 months, the process of prep, surgery, recovery was exponentially adding up to a whole lot of body dysfunction for me, so it was very reasonable that I was hitting a wall of sorts in my recovery process.

Depression came to mind and well, I had days when I did personally acknowledge that is how I felt, “Depressed!” But what I was feeling seemed to encompass so many different things…it wasn’t one specific thing…it was a whole jumble of things that had just felt off since June 2016. I’d have good days, truly good days, followed by bad days and none of it, given how quickly I’d recover from each surgery made sense. When I felt sad, I talked about it. I embraced it, acknowledged it and then turned it over to God. I wasn’t walking around feeling sorry for myself. I truly felt like there was something obvious I needed to change and if I could just figure out what it was, it would set me back on the right path.

Maybe I just wasn’t giving myself enough time to heal properly on an emotional and spiritual level?  Maybe I had too quickly jumped into focusing on the blessings, instead of dealing with the real realities of what it takes for a middle-aged woman to recover from so many major surgical procedures?  I mean cancer is a big enough battle alone, and I had tossed stones at Goliath’s forehead time and time again in the surgery room. I mean it was possible that my humble version of David had merely run out of stones to throw at Goliath, right?

Maybe.   Maybe so.   But as I carefully dissected each and every medical procedure I had had over the past 36 months, it seemed that the source of all of my setbacks to complete recovery seemed to have something to do with those two fake orbs resting on my chest. 

I should have recognized how I thought of them from the beginning…they were fake. They were not me.

I thought back to June 16, 2016.  I remember that day so well.  For fifty-three years, I had gone without having a major health mishap.  I had a few diverticulitis attacks that were not fun and once had a bad case of bronchitis, but for the most part, my health was pretty much normal and my hospital stays limited to having babies. In my world,  you get sick, you see the doctor, get an antibiotic and back to life you go.

But a bi-lateral mastectomy was different.  I was going to be losing a physical part of me.  An important part of me that had been with me for over half a century. A part of me that cancer had stolen.

The idea of not having any chest at all was really hard to get my mind around given how overwhelming just coming to terms with having breast cancer is.   I initially scoured the internet looking for articles on what it was like for women who had a bi-lateral mastectomy and no reconstruction.  I had no basis to understand what that meant in real life.    But, out there in internet land, there was pretty much nothing about anyone who chose not to have reconstruction.   I mean, “why would you do that”, when in fact, even the language used on respected sites like breast cancer.org pushed reconstruction as a way for a woman to “get her body back”.    

So, almost as if in a trance, I began to click on reconstruction articles and suddenly ads, tons and tons of ads for Plastic Surgeons scrolled across my screen…fake boobs were everywhere. Whatever I wanted for my chest was at my disposal.  Size, shape, type…you name it…for a fee, I could look like whomever I wanted to.

Cancer, schmancer!  Girl, you are going to be better than before.  No one will know.  No one.    

My eyes were dazzled by the ads.    I remember wondering what my chest, the chest that nursed my three babies, would look like if I didn’t have reconstruction, what would it feel like?  Would I be able to face myself in the mirror without breasts?  Would my husband still find me attractive or repulsed by my flat disfigurement?  Would my kids be embarrassed looking at me?  My friends find me freakish?

Dreams, night terrors really, would plague me with strange faces all laughing and pointing at my missing chest.   I descended rapidly into a world where, for the first time in my life, what strangers thought of my chest, actually mattered to me. 

And it was in this state of mind that I was asked to choose whether or not I wanted reconstruction to be a part of the bi-lateral mastectomy process.   

To back it up a bit, after a couple days of internet scrolling, I chose reconstruction pretty much without hesitation.  Specifically, because I felt it was somehow what was expected of me.   Oh certainly, not by my husband, not by my kids or extended family or by anyone I really knew and to be fair, not by my general surgeon either or the multiple plastic surgeons I interviewed.  Even the plastic surgeon I ultimately selected said over and over again that the choice to reconstruct was up to me.   But as I said, I had no female role models with which to compare to reconstruct or not to reconstruct.  The only thing I had in my wheelhouse was the internet images from various plastic surgeons of successful reconstruction procedures and multiple conversations with my chosen plastic surgeon. And all of this at the same time I was processing actually having breast cancer, leaving a job I loved and figuring out how to keep life as normal for my family as possible.

Wow, who wouldn’t want a chest that looked like the images I saw on the screen. It was a no-brainer, or so I thought.

In fairness to the process, my general surgeon did have me watch a 45-minute video where a cast of mastectomy survivors paraded across the screen, their stories meant to sound comforting and similar to mine, and designed to connect with me, “woman to woman.”  Sitting there watching that video I remember feeling terrified and strangely connected to this cast of characters on the screen for whom were my only source of comparison. 

All of them had chosen reconstruction, but one.   The one who hadn’t reconstructed seemed dowdy, dated, and older than the other, more stylish women, all of whom were proudly wearing clothing that displayed their new chests to their fullest advantage.  They looked tasteful, refined, just like beautiful happy women should look.

I wanted to be them.   Take that Breast Cancer!

Watching the video, I do remember a fleeting thought, “Why is this video so one sided, with women being filmed in full make-up, professional dress and the camera lens filtered to show each woman in all of their gossamer beauty?”  

“Why does it sound like a walk in the park to get a new chest?” 

But overpowering those thoughts, was this imaginary cast of characters I had created in my dreams who would call me a fool for passing up such a wonderful opportunity to have life return to normal for me. 

My new chest might be fake, but hey, it was a chest after all and from that standpoint, everything seemed logical, rational and straightforward as to how to proceed.   I had experienced professionals lined up who had done these reconstruction procedures hundreds, if not a thousand times, and they knew what they were doing.

But here’s the thing.   In my vulnerable state, I DIDN’T HAVE A CLUE WHAT I WAS DOING!  

Yes, I had selected a terrific, outstanding plastic surgeon. He is the best! But I was not basing my decision on my candid conversations with him.

Ladies, note to self: If you don’t ask the questions of your surgeon, you can’t expect them to read your mind.

Instead, I was basing important decisions about my body on a half hour video, sliced and diced to promote reconstruction in a positive light.  I was basing important decisions about my body on page after page of Plastic Surgeon ads, all targeting vulnerable women like “me”.   

I had zero conversations with real bi-lateral mastectomy survivors who chose not to have reconstruction, although I met many after I had already gone through with it.   I’m sure if I had asked my plastic surgeon to connect me, he would have, but I didn’t. So I didn’t really know or understand what questions to ask. I was dazzled by the images I had seen on the screen.

Better than Before…BYE BYE BREAST CANCER! VA VA VOOM ANNE!

I didn’t know enough to ask myself why it suddenly mattered what the stranger on the street thought about my chest? I didn’t know enough to ask what it would be like to have a reconstructed chest that while normal to the outside world, on the inside, felt null and void and strangely foreign? 

I didn’t know enough to understand that after reconstruction my chest region would no longer feel warm and natural, but cold, sterile, as if my breasts spent all day encased in a freezer.    I didn’t know enough to understand that my muscles would no longer work the same way with the implant under the chest muscle and that my range of motion would forever feel like I was a marionette on a string.   I didn’t know enough to understand that I would no longer be able to sleep on my stomach and that sleeping on my side would cause pain and discomfort as the implants became increasingly hard and inflexible.   I didn’t know enough to understand that implants move and shift when you are active as I am, and that I would not be able to do a lot of the things I love, without having to pause mid-motion to acknowledge the limitations the implants created.   I didn’t know enough to understand that I would be in pain every single day and every single night, in my hips, my upper chest, under my arm because my body didn’t like silicone.    I didn’t know enough to understand I would feel foggy, almost dysfunctional, day in and day out because I was not ever getting a good night sleep.  I didn’t know enough to explant sooner, after the first implant shifted into my left arm pit and was replaced, and again, after the right painfully contracted due to radiation, and then contracted again almost immediately after it was replaced for the second time.   

I didn’t know enough to understand that despite outward appearances, I would be a physical and emotional wreck for going on three years, as day in and day out, what was going on with my chest dominated my daily landscape. 

I didn’t know enough to understand that my faith was being tested, as while God was busy answering blessing after blessing and I certainly was blogging about all of them, the one thing that didn’t seem to change was that privately I was forever dealing with my chest. 

“God, you have been with me every step of the way…I know it, but what is going on here?” 

“Is it so wrong to want to wake up in the morning and just be me and not have to deal with my stupid chest day in and day out?”   I felt a deep loss, as if God didn’t understand and guilt because I knew I had been blessed time and time again and I should just shut up and deal with my lot in life.

There are so many people who are worse off than me and my stupid fake boobs, right?

I began to withdraw from my family, friends, life in general, and sort of hermited myself away in the house all day.  I tried my best to engage at church and with my book club and some close friends and of course, my husband and kids, but more often than not, I felt as if my writing was my only friend.   And then at some point, as I said, even that stopped being important to me.    I was in pain.  Literally yes, but more figuratively, because I had done everything right and yet, my life wasn’t right.  I felt empty.

You see, I did what most women of means do when confronted with breast cancer.  I found one of the best plastic surgeons in the business, a breast cancer reconstruction specialist who would work in tandem with my general surgeon and out would come the cancer tissue and in would go tissue expanders that would prepare my chest for new breasts.   I would wake up from the anesthetic still with some form of a chest and yes, it would be painful for a moment, maybe a long moment, but it would be worth the pain in a few months, when my new chest was healed and new implants in place,   and life would go right back to where it was June 2016. 

Only, it didn’t go back.  Not at all and I was really feeling pretty lost.  Like I had made this terrible decision to do this reconstruction thing and it hadn’t worked out so great, but so many people looked up to me as a role model and I had set myself up for that with my positivity blog.  I wanted to be a great example not only them, but my mom was now battling breast cancer for a second time.  Although she would never ask it of me, I wanted to be strong for her as well.  A pillar of strength.  A beacon of hope.   But I was miserable.  

Although, I couldn’t quite articulate what was happening to me, I felt everything: the physical pain, the emotional scars, the loss of interest in my faith, all seemed somehow tied to the problems with my chest. I had some friends who had had reconstruction and everything was fine with them. What was it about me that made me different from them?

Now, I believe God works his blessings in our lives in ways we never expect.

Mine came in the form of getting lymphedema after my April implant replacement surgery and a recall notice from Allergen about my implants possible link to lymphoma.      

Huh?   Lymphedema and recalled implants a blessing…WHAT?

Yep, because when I got lymphedema, God put in my path three amazing women, lymphedema occupational and physical therapists, who turned out to be my angels.     I was to meet with them twice a week.

My very first session, the first therapist took a look at my chest and said, “Hmmm…yeah I can see the fluid build-up, but seriously I think you have contracture again and that’s probably why your chest hurts and implants sometimes don’t work for certain women despite their surgeons best efforts.”

Another therapist said, “Anne, I have had clients who have had all sorts of pain, tissue dysfunction and emotional issues from breast implants and removing them did the trick.”

My third therapist said, “Radiated tissue causes contracture. It’s a given. It’s really difficult to get implants to react normally once you’ve had radiation.”

I do recall my plastic surgeon telling me how much he hates a radiated chest…what a battle it will be and oh, yeah, I do recall him telling me this would take a long time to get right.   

“If only you hadn’t had radiation, things might not be so difficult for you…chest radiation always, always affects implant success.”

As I said, I have tremendous respect for my plastic surgeon.  He has given it his best shot to help me every single time. But I had no control over the fact that no one raised a red flag and I mean a huge red flag when I chose to have reconstruction as a part of the cancer tumor removal process before it was known whether or not I would need radiation. Not my general surgeon, not my plastic surgeon, not my radiation oncologist, my general oncologist, my primary care physician, the video I had watched about reconstruction, or anywhere obvious on-line.  

No one said, “Anne, you seriously need to think about this and I mean THINK ABOUT IT because the risk of implant failure with radiation is almost certain!”

I mean, I’m reasonably intelligent and I think a simple, “You know Anne, if the surgeon doesn’t get all the cancer (as was my case with an unclear margin), you will need radiation and that will definitely impact the success of an implant.”  I’d like to think I would have said, “Well o.k. then, lets get this cancer out first and see what happens.” In fact, I know damn well that’s what I would have said.

So why wasn’t it said and said over and over and over again?

I came to understand some of the reasons why in conversations during the twelve sessions, 360 minutes in total, I had with my lymphedema therapists as they massaged and prodded and poked at my rock hard chest to get the fluid to move. Let me be clear, they were extremely professional at all times. They never crossed the line with information out of their realm or scope, however, during my time with them I felt like for the first time someone understood what I was going through. They understood that I didn’t like how I was feeling, that it wasn’t o.k. for this feeling not myself to be my new normal and in turn I came to understand a lot about my body and that other women they treated had similar issues, that I was not alone in my suffering.

I came to understand that the push to attach foreign bodies to a woman’s chest has virtually zero to do with her making a quick recovery from breast cancer and everything to do with the fact that breasts sell. Breasts sell magazines, television shows, movies, clothing, and that means advertising dollars up the wazoo. There is a reason why there is not a lot of information out there on choosing to remain flat. Who’s going to push the media algorithm to not reconstruct if the money is in the reconstruction?

It’s like going flat is a secret society and we’ve been conditioned to say it under our breath or apologize if that’s our choice, as if it’s a bad thing.

I came to understand that my body, for whatever reason, just didn’t like being invaded by blobs of silicone and that it was a lot more common than the medical community wants us to know.  In fact, 25 percent of women who get breast implants have them removed and 46 percent undergo a revision operation within the first 3 years , another 6 percent have them removed due a variety of issues ranging from contracture to chronic pain and all sorts of other physical and emotional issues.   Ding, ding, ding!!!

I came to understand that the choices women are pushed towards when facing a mastectomy, are not focused on quickly enabling her to live her life cancer free, but about making sure that a woman is restored to her previous “expected” appearance aka, with boobs.    The video I watched prior to making my reconstruction decision was proof of that.   The literally thousands of plastic surgeons and images of reconstruction on the internet is also proof.  But trust me, there are loads of women, more than you know, who quietly live their lives without a chest and you know what, life goes on. They are beautiful, they are worthy and they are just as sexy.

I came to understand that literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of women who have undergone reconstruction after a mastectomy are suffering in silence with a whole host of symptoms like constant nerve pain, fatigue, depression and an overall lack of well being.    That there is an actual name for it called, “ Breast Implant Illness” and while it is now considered a real thing as there has been an FDA identified link between implants and a rare form of lymphoma, leading to an implant recall, the actually spectrum of Breast Implant Illness covered every symptom I had been experiencing since June 2016.   Every symptom!   My gut instinct was correct!

I came to understand that the lymphedema that I had experienced was most likely, in their expert opinion, caused by the implant contracture blocking the fluid from moving freely in my body and I had a terrific chance, if the implant was removed, of putting lymphedema, at least for the most part, in the rear view mirror.

I seriously can’t thank my lymphedema team enough for opening my eyes to the realities of what I was putting my body through with implants. They helped me in so many ways and I will always regard them as my angels. But, they never said my immune system was rejecting the implants outright, they were all too professional for that, my blood work was fine, I was the bouncing ball remember? I was the role model, the poster child for surgical recovery.

Still, I needed more substantial proof that the implants were the source of my problems. I prayed and God answered my prayer almost immediately and it came in the form of a letter.

My implants were recalled. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The recall letter from Allergen, the manufacturer of the textured implants I had,  listed over 40 recalled implants, plus a bonus surprise, the tissue expanders I had had initially were also on the recall  list, along with 13 others tissue expanders.   France and Canada had pulled these products off the market in 2015-16, prior to my first surgery and yet, here I was a United States guinea pig for a product that had already been deemed a known cancer-causing harborer by two world superpowers, not once, not twice, but three times, not including the expanders which were in my body a whole three months.

“Anne, you shouldn’t worry, you only have a 1 in 30,000 chance of getting this rare form of lymphoma from the implants!”

Um, sorry, rare or not, I’d prefer not to get cancer again thank you very much!   

So, I had the information I needed. Some was speculative, some proof positive and I had explant surgery last week.  

Prior to this decision, I met with my plastic surgeon.  He obviously was a bit disappointed.  I get that, he’s earned his medical stripes diligently trying to salvage my chest and like I said, he’s the consumate professional.    He offered me some options like implant exchange or on the radiated side, having a muscle removed from my back.  The latimus dorsi muscle, the one that I use to swim, to paddle board, to push and pull and lift…but hey, who needs a latimus dorsi muscle when it can be a foundation for yet another implant, all be it smaller, but still another implant.  But it would be soft.  No more contracture.

I didn’t have to think twice.  I said, “I know you have tried to help me, and I value that more than you will ever know, but I want them out!”

So here I am 6 days into explant recovery.  It hurts like hell and it doesn’t look pretty at the moment.  I have drain lines in, so sleeping is a bit of a challenge, but I saw the plastic surgeon today and he’s very pleased with the healing and said the drains can come out in about 10 days. All in all good news and I know it wasn’t my imagination that he seemed to be as relieved as I am to be moving on from this reconstruction nightmare.

I didn’t share with him that I’ve already been blessed by so many miracles in just six days.

I have feeling, instead of numbness, in my chest region for the first time in three years. 

My skin on my chest feels warm to the touch, instead of cold and icy.

I had to adjust the temperature on the shower to cooler as I could actually feel the hotness of the water on my chest region.

My arm range of motion, while a bit limited due to the stiches and soreness, is greater than it was pre-surgery.  I don’t feel like a marionette. 

The lymphedema in my chest is limited and doesn’t appear to be much of an issue now.

The crippling pain in my hip, legs, back is gone.   Completely gone!

I am able to move from the floor, to the bed, using my legs and arms, on the first try, without assistance.

While I am tired, the brain fog, the depression, the lack of motivation, the complete lack of energy is gone.   

I am back to believing in blessings and miracles and God’s amazing power to comfort and heal.

I am happy.

I am joyful.

I am me again. 

This is my story and my story alone. 

Lots of women have different, more positive reconstruction experiences, and I am truly grateful that they are not experiencing the issues that I have faced. I know some of these women and so my candor here is in no way designed to diminish their happiness. They have survived breast cancer and their reconstruction has been successful for them. Praise God!

However, my journey has been different and I felt it important to share with all of you who have been on this positivity journey with me, my struggles and my solutions, especially women in breast cancer recovery, those who have chosen reconstruction and those who haven’t and all who care for those with breast cancer.

Do not be afraid to make a bold choice and put “you” first when it comes to your health on all fronts.   Ask the questions, demand the answers and if it doesn’t feel right, then go with your gut.

Instinct sometimes is all we have to go on when it comes to our health issues, especially when it comes to our breasts, cancer and reconstruction and it is important that a women trusts hers.

You have survived cancer, you are survivor and you will, as I have, survive this too.

I am here to support you.  To pray for you and lift you up. 

PositivelyAnne