Updated: Jun 22, 2021
A frank discussion about the physical, mental, and emotional impacts.
Tammey speaks intimately and authentically on the life-altering impact of life-saving surgery. She discusses how the sterile surgical term belies the messy emotional, physical, and mental health realities felt by those diagnosed with breast cancer and facing this intervention. Tammey openly recounts the deep personal pain that goes far beyond the physical cuts of a scalpel. Discussing the very human cost of mastectomies, being brought out of the whispered cries of women and men across the world to the surface for open discussion and awareness.
“Every time I got dressed, I was reminded every time I got out of the shower, I was reminded. When I got ready for bed every night, I was reminded. There was no escaping the fact that I had cancer and I'd had a mastectomy and I was facing the unknown.” -Tammey Grable-Woodford Click to tweet
Topics in this Episode:
Lost in the blur
In the dark and unprepared
A friend in need, needing friends
If you don’t know, I can’t explain. . .but I will try
The assassination of intimacy
Lost in my own skin
Thanks a lot “Kubler-Ross”
A new perception: A new beginning
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Hello and thank you for joining me this week on your killer life. I'm Tammy Grable-Woodford, your host, and today we are getting a little personal, or at least I am. We're going to be talking mastectomies and this specifically, I'm going to be talking about mine. So until I was diagnosed, I had no idea that there were multiple types of mastectomies.
And if you go out to cancer.org website, you'll see them broken down into about five or six types. They've got the simple or total mastectomy, the skin-sparing mastectomy, the nipple-sparing mastectomy, the radical mastectomy. The modified radical mastectomy, and then of course the unilateral or double bilateral mastectomy.
Where I ended up was with a bilateral modified radical mastectomy. Now, as I mentioned in a previous episode, the cancer train moves so fast when you are diagnosed, and it's kind of a little shocking. You know, I had my mammogram and I had my ultrasound, and that day I was told I had cancer and that I would need a biopsy because with the biopsy there were three tumors and they needed to, identify what type of cancer I had, because that was one of the first things they do as they start to make recommendations for treatment slash therapies, also known as interventions. So I had this couple day period between being told I had cancer and not having my biopsies yet, so I was busy. Frankly, trying to enjoy a little bit of denial because face it, it's big news and it's, it is devastating news. And the first thing you want to do is start to deny that this is, this is what's going on and what's happening. And so in my mind, I didn't have a path report. I didn't have a pathology report, so it could still maybe be nothing.
Maybe the tumors I had were just benign. Well in those few days, I got the call from the general surgeon's office, and my... or my breast surgeon, and my breast surgeon's office called to schedule me. And when I asked them why, they said, well, we want to talk with you about the type of mastectomy and whether you want to have a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy.
Lost in the blur
So they had already had enough information, that they knew we were going to have this conversation. So on today's episode, we're going to kind of leave behind the things that you can Google and you can find, and we're going to talk about some of those things that, in my opinion, don't get discussed enough or aren't brought up at all.
Or at least in my case. We're not mentioned, and I phrase it that way because there are so many different types of providers and provider skill sets and bedside manner and personalities and the speed of which you go through the process and whether or not you have a navigator and there's just so much going on.
Not everybody's experience is at all the same and even with the same cancer type and the same staging, there's still so many differences. So I thought today I would cover the unveiling, because that was something I wasn't really prepared for. And when I say the unveiling, I mean when the bandages come off and your seeing the results of the mastectomy for the first time.
Going to talk about side effects. Because there were some side effects of this procedure that I was not prepared for. And in hindsight, I can say to myself, you know, if only you had Googled a little more or spent a little more time or researched a little bit more, and I could totally pick on myself about it, but there were things I just wasn't prepared for.
And then I'm also going to talk a little bit about mental health. Because there is a huge element of this process that impacts your mental health and is not discussed, or at least in my case, was never discussed with me. So today is a little bit of a vulnerable episode for me.
A change in language
I'll tell you, I have since modified my language a little bit. I often refer to my bilateral mastectomy as a bilateral amputation or breast amputation. No one prepares you for just how violent it is going to look when you unveil unpackage or take the dressing off after the procedure is done. And the reality is that we talk about mastectomies, and we use the medical term, which is this nice, clean, sterile... right? Phrase or term for what we're going to do for this life saving procedure. And all of that is true, but it also serves to detach. And it doesn't help prepare you for what it is that you're going to see and experience when you wake up from anesthesia.
Obviously I knew I would wake up without my breasts. I knew that. And I expected that to be mentally difficult, but there are a number of things that I didn't know.
When my amazing surgeon unwrapped me for the first time, I did not know that in place of sutures, I would have a row of industrial looking staples, replacing my previously soft round feminine breasts.
And these staples, when I say industrial looking, they look like roofing staples. Yes, they're surgical staples and maybe some of us have seen those and I have not. I have been fortunate prior to this that I have not had any experience with a medical staple. I did not expect to see a 10-inch incision line on each side of my chest held together with surgical staples.
And in addition to being startling, my first thought was, oooh my gosh, this is going to hurt so bad when they take these out.
In the Dark. And unprepared
Now, I don't know what I was expecting or maybe I do. Right? I maybe I, what I, what I was expecting was nice silk sutures, right? Across my chest. I was not expecting to see staples and that takes me to the next thing.
I wasn't prepared for. And you could argue, well, you know, in hindsight you kind of shoulda have, should have had an idea, but I was not prepared for my whole chest to be numb. I had no feeling. No sensation. And so I remember wincing in anticipation and looking away as the surgeon went to remove the first staple.
And I remember him saying, okay, how was that? And I remember the physical, the mental, and the emotional confusion around not feeling anything.
I wasn't prepared to see wadded up tissue in place of where my breasts had been. Now, this isn't a bad thing, and one of the things that I did is I had a conversation with a plastic surgeon, prior to having my mastectomies done, so that I could have a conversation about the type of reconstruction or whether I wanted to move forward with reconstruction after having the mastectomies.
And this was a very important conversation because if I didn't want to move forward with the mastectomies, this w... this look, this appearance would have been far different, but because I did want to have reconstruction, the surgeon did the best job that he could in preserving as much tissue as possible to make sure, and by tissue, I mean skin, because all the breast tissue is gone, as much skin as possible to make the reconstruction process easier on me.
But I wasn't prepared to wake up with this, this wadded up clumpy tissue, and I wasn't prepared to wake up with cavities, chest cavities. You know? All of a sudden I had a... I had a negative a-cup because when they removed all of the breast tissue, it was skin over chest wall and that wadded up tissue was sitting in those concave areas of my chest.
I wasn't prepared for how uncomfortable having drainage bulbs would be, and for any woman who's been on their breast cancer journey. Oh goodness. As we walk that path, that is one thing we all have in common. None of us like having drainage bulbs coming out of us, that very alien feeling and the discomfort with that.
I also was not prepared for none of my clothing to fit. So here I had this corporate wardrobe and most of my blouses, once my breasts were gone, would drop down and you would see either bandages or wadded up tissue or a tank top, because I had to invest in a bunch of tank tops and camisoles because nothing fit.
I was not prepared for that. And that was one of those... oh, daily reminders to me, and I'll talk a little bit more about the daily reminders when we talk about mental health.
So other things that I was not prepared for... Suddenly I was so self-conscious. And I did not hide the fact that I had breast cancer and mastectomies. I communicated that at work. I let people know. And so, you know, it was one of those things that it would have been more awkward for me and I, and I know there are people who don't discuss it and they, and they, they go through it without that.
And for me, I just, that was not how I wanted to do this. I needed for people to understand why I was making some of the changes I was making in my life and in my career. And I didn't want to... for me, I needed to be able to process it. And that was one of the ways that I was processing it as I walked through it.
So suddenly I'm self-conscious because everybody knows I had a mastectomy, a bilateral mastectomy, and even the most well-intentioned person may or may not be able to avoid their gaze when they see you after surgery. And if they can, you are so far in your own head that you kind of assume everybody's looking anyway.
And so there's this really weird space postop where I, I, for me anyway, I was so uncomfortable in my own skin and you can't really wear prosthetics when you're right out of surgery. Because you're all bandaged up. And so there's sort of this, this period of time where you're flat chested and then you know, you go through this process of, am I being inauthentic if I wear these prosthetics... or am I being inauthentic by pretending it doesn't bother me and not wearing prosthetics. And I mean, you just kind of lose yourself a little bit. And that might sound odd to somebody who hasn't been through it, but it is the weirdest space to be in. And then part of it, yeah. Believe it or not is kind of try and sizes.
A friend in need - needing friends
So there's this wonderful organization called knitted... knitted knockers. And they actually knitt very soft breast prosthesis that are stuffed with, they're knitted with great... I don't know what kind of yarn they use, because I don't knit. I'll have knitted knockers on the show one of these days.
And anyway, they're nice and soft and they're light so they, you can wear them sooner, or at least I could wear them sooner postoperatively.
And part of it was kind of playing around with size because you know, now I have a choice, kind of. And when we talk about reconstruction, we'll talk about kind of, because you don't, you don't have an unlimited choice on some things when it comes to reconstruction. It is not a boob job. I will just say that.
So anyway, you're feeling... I was feeling like, oh my gosh, you know, who the heck am I? I'm uncomfortable in my own skin. I don't look like myself. And, and people know I had this done and... oh my gosh. It was just kind of beating me up mentally. And of course, you know, nobody cared to the degree that I cared, but in that moment, everything being so new and traumatic, it's, it's a weird space to be.
I felt unattractive, so unattractive.
If you don’t know, I cant explain… but I will try…
I'm not quite sure how to explain this to someone who hasn't been through it. And obviously breasts do not define a woman. They do not define attractiveness. And, and frankly, you can argue that confidence... and how a person carries themselves and their heart and their light and their energy. I mean, these are the things, all of these things that, that create what is or is not attractive.
And at the same time, let's not pretend, that as a woman, this is a thing from when we are coming out of puberty to who knows? I don't know. Hopefully somebody out there tell me, it ends at some point in time and age because I'm almost 50 and I'm still wondering...
But breasts are associated with attractiveness.
They are on a biological level with stuff that we cannot hide as original critters, and they are part of everyday advertising, selling everything from beer to Coca Cola to chicken nuggets. I don't know, but everything right? Front and center. They're everywhere.
All of this sudden yours are gone. They're gone and they're replaced with wadded up tissue in a concave divot in your chest that you're trying to figure out how to hide, wear clothes, and look somewhat normal and feel okay about.
The assassination of intimacy
I felt so unattractive. Which leads me to sex.
I could not imagine. I at that point could not imagine getting intimacy back in my life. And again, because from a societal norm, from a societal level, what we value or what is valued in attractiveness for many, and again, not for all. And of course my feelings are not going to be representative of everybody's feelings.
For me, I couldn't imagine inviting anyone into that space. For me, I couldn't imagine being topless in front of someone. And if you've listened to previous episodes, remember my husband asked for a divorce two weeks before my diagnosis.
So I'm newly single after 20 years, and feeling unattractive. Definitely not feeling like I can get my sexy on, and frankly, I didn't want to look at my chest and I had a hard time believing anyone else would either.
I mean, just imagine those conversations.
Which leads me to feeling robbed of my femininity.
Again, femininity is more than breasts. Women are more than breasts.
This body modification being forced upon you is going to bring to the surface so many emotions and... and your mind may not always go in the most logical places because how can it, and you don't want it to, there's so much you have to process.
But you know, here, this area of my, my body of myself, my person that was intimate, delicate, feminine, soft, round, all of that wiped away.
Went to sleep, woke up without it.
Lost in my own skin
And this left me feeling... lost in my skin and it impacted my confidence in ways that, that I would not have imagined. That ding to my confidence impacted so many aspects of my life because I just, all of this sudden felt awkward with who I was and how I looked and I didn't feel like me.
I didn't recognize me. I didn't look like me. And. We've all, most all have had some trauma at some point in our lives. Right. And I'm no exception to that. The challenge with this trauma was that I couldn't escape me. I couldn't get away from me. Okay.
Every time I got dressed, I was reminded every time I got out of the shower, I was reminded. When I got ready for bed every night, I was reminded.
There was no escaping the fact that I had cancer and I'd had a mastectomy and I was facing the unknown. And I was no longer familiar with who I was.
And all of that brought with it social anxiety. New anxiety to toss into my cancer anxiety bucket. Which was already getting pretty heavy.
I was someone who had no issues public... speaking publicly. I had no problem meeting new people. I had a very long career that was always yaking... interacting, meeting new people, gathering business cards, networking, connecting people.
All of the sudden the idea of being around people created so much anxiety. It started to change the person I knew to be me.
Thanks a lot Kubler-Ross
So of course I started bargaining. Righ? Of course. And I started to try and downplay the changes that I was feeling in my body, in myself with my person, with my confidence, the person that I was, I just, I, I wanted to deny all of the changes and the best way I could do that was to start dismissing it and playing it down.
Denying my emotions around it. They're just breasts. What does it matter? It's just tissue. I don't even, I don't use it. I don't, I don't have kids. I'm not planning on having kids. Right? So what's it matter? I mean, it's vanity. Just like, you know, they get in the way when I play golf. Yeah. I actually said that to myself.
I like to run. They're always, they're always a pain with running. Doesn't matter. I should just be grateful.
I should just be grateful... that I'm alive.
And while that last statement is very, very true.
That gratitude of being alive and still continuing my journey back to health should never be an exchange for my rightful mourning of my loss.
My rightful mourning of my loss.
So on one of my more difficult days, I was talking with a close friend and I was running down my list. My list of...oh... why it wasn't really a big deal to lose my breasts and why it didn't matter. And the fact that I was in my forties and sex wasn't important anymore. I didn't have to have that. And you know, I had a long marriage and that wasn't, that wasn't relevant anymore and I should just be grateful that I'm alive and it's fine.
It doesn't represent anything. It's not important. As I was running down this list, and I'm going to try not to cry. My friend asked me a very poignant question.
Because as I was writing off my sadness, my pain my mourning, and I was trying to write it all off as vanity and un... unimportant and immaterial as I was accepting that now I was separated and felt pretty sure I wouldn't have a partner, especially with the unknowns of cancer, because who wants to invite a person into your life with that going on. With the reality of how I looked, my friend asked me this:
Are you sure... are you sure that you're, are you sure that you are not confusing vanity with identity?
A new perception. . . a new beginning
That one question. That one question opened the door to my grieving, and I had so carefully packaged all of that away. I was so busy denying myself and applauding my strength and walking in this strongness...
And in this, you know, oh I would be so weak if I were to acknowledge the impacts of this.
This opened the door to my rightful grieving.
You know your physical appearance intimately. You've spent a lifetime getting comfortable in your body. Your physical self is the physical manifestation and representation of your identity.
That question exposed my trauma... to me. So I was so busy thinking and judging myself and casting labels like "weak" and "vain" on myself only to have that one question bring me back to center.
To realize loving yourself as not vanity. Appreciating your physical self is not vanity. Being comfortable and confident in your own skin is not vanity.
These are things I would hope for anyone. Right?
This opened the door to me, mourning my loss. Accepting... starting to accept, my physical changes while I was walking my journey, my path to reclamation.
And this was an important part of my healing because for me, I discovered I needed to walk with my trauma and make friends with it.
I needed to include it. Embrace it in my life. It was not separate from me and the only person that I was hurting by shoving it away was me.
If you know someone going through breast cancer. Or if you're supporting someone in their breast cancer path, please consider sharing your killer life with them.
Next week. Next week, I'm going to try not to cry again because Griff and I are going to get deeply personal and he's going to come on and we're going to talk about mastectomies from his view.
I know I had predetermined narratives about what a guy would think, what a guy would feel, what would happen to the excitement of an intimate moment when seeing a chest post-mastectomy. I had created some, some stories around all of that. And next week, we'll find out if I was wrong.
Thank you so much for listening and for subscribing, and until next time, keep building Your Killer Life.
Remember the conversations you hear on the show are based on unique experiences and varying diagnosis. And we all had our own medical teams. We are not giving medical advice. So if you hear something inspiring, please talk with your providers.
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