My experience with breast cancer

Posted on: 10 October 2011 by Carole Edrich

Carole Edrich talks candidly about the physical and psychological challenges of living with - and beating - breast cancer.

breast cancer tumourIt’s difficult to explain to those who have not gone through it how incredibly hard it is to regularly check my breast for any ‘signs of change’. I manage to do so most of the time. When I don’t, like now, when I have to force myself to face it I want to cry and feel physically, horribly sick.

If you know what you’re looking for you can always see it, but if I wear the right clothes, the right bra, if I hold myself in a certain way, then I can disguise the worst.

Provided, that is, that I don’t wear the clothes that any fit or fitness-conscious woman would wear without thinking. Provided I don’t wear anything that hugs the figure, shows the silhouette or any of the ‘normal’ t-shirts and classic tops designed for maximum comfort while cycling, swimming, training, running or in the gym.

At first, my breast was too swollen for me to know how it might end up, but over the months as the swelling reduced, I made it clear to the plastic surgeon exactly how I felt. He knew I didn’t like the shape, that it was in the wrong place, that my work involved being photographed, that I used to be extremely fit and that I was still so fitness conscious that I cycled all the way through chemo. Despite announcing that most women were asymmetrical (a response that stunned me at the time, and which in retrospect I believe to have been not simply thoughtless or insensitive, but also the degree of asymmetry with which I was left, of the context and of my intelligence), he agreed to a second operation that should help sort things out.  

The first time I brought it up, he told me to wait until 3 months after chemo. I didn’t like that - it would mean I’d be disfigured for at least 9 months – but I understood why. When the three months came around, in the appointment I thought would signal an imminent operation, I was forced to go repeat the agony of telling him how unhappy I was with the position of my new breast. He repeated his comment that no woman is completely symmetrical and told me that the saline sack could be replaced with a tear-dropped gel sack and that he’d see about keeping it less central by placing a small stitch in the appropriate place.

I told him I understood that he couldn’t make any guarantees and asked for his assurance to try. I assume he said that he would but don’t know for sure, because at that stage I was too upset to note down his response. He then told me that the operation would not take place for another 3 months since 6 months after chemo would avoid immune system complications.

I was devastated but the reason he gave made sense and the operation was scheduled for approximately six months later. I now remember that he offered to take out the painful shunt on my side even though I had already started chemotherapy so wonder whether there were other motives for this delay. (Despite the constant bruising and other discomfort it gave me I asked to wait until chemo had finished because I was already terrified of neutrophilic septicaemia (blood poisoning which if untreated can lead to death) and didn’t want any more risk, I might not have done this had I realised that it would mean waiting for over a year after chemo had ended).

For about a month before the operation was scheduled, I was able to put my disfigurement to one side. In some ways, this made it more difficult to deal with, when I was unable to pretend I looked normal. One hot summer's day, I was so upset by what I saw in the mirror while training that, in spite of the heat, I kept my tracksuit top closed for the whole workout. Since then, even with baggie tops, I’ve had to fight myself to go. Sometimes I have lost and have put on weight as a consequence.

Nevertheless, I managed. It would, after all, take just one more horrible operation and I would no longer be so deformed. But as the operation date approached, my control relaxed. Thinking that it would all soon be over I accepted consciously how horribly, awfully deformed it makes me feel. In retrospect, the timing of that letting go was a mistake.

So was taking a lover...


The second part of Carole's experience with cancer will be published Monday 17 October.

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