The Whole Truth About Breast Reconstruction

Laura Zigman Health Guide
  • breast reconstruction patient stories
    Illustration: Dash Shaw


    This is the part of the story that gets interesting -- and the part that is hardest to write because it is here where I plan on being honest.


    Which is to say that I'm going to describe what it felt like to wake up from a 12-hour surgery and realize that having had a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction and my abs moved around is a whole lot different from a tummy tuck.


    (A preview: I felt like I had been hit by a truck and then the truck sat on me. But more about this in future posts...)


    Part of the "challenge" (the really really hard thing here) is that while I want to be honest about what the procedure and the aftermath of the procedure was really like, I don't want to scare women off who are considering having it. Because when all is said and done, exactly one year later this week, I would make the same choice I made a year ago: to have the bilateral mastectomy when only the left breast* had DCIS and required a mastectomy (*even though the final pathology report would show that the right breast also had DCIS in it that had gone undetected by both the mammogram and the MRI), and to have the TRAM flap reconstruction procedure, despite the fact that I still can't roll over in bed without having to think about exactly how I'm going to do it (hint: it helps to grab onto the sheet and pull).

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    One of the reasons I'm particularly sensitive to the exquisite balance between telling it like it is and telling too much is because of what it was like right before giving birth for the first time to my son over seven years ago. It seemed that in the month before I was due friends and strangers came out of the woodwork to tell me their horror stories of childbirth -- stories of epic and urban-legend proportions filled with blood and gore and guts and trauma and carnage that no one would want to hear ever, let alone right before they were going to have to go through the same process.


    What was especially annoying about it was that I never asked anyone to tell me their horror stories; I had never once asked friends or friends of friends or complete strangers with whom I just happened to be riding in an elevator with to tell me about what their experiences with childbirth were, and I certainly never said to them: Please, oh please tell me how horrible it was! Please shock and scare and frighten and gross me out by telling me how much pain you felt and how your baby almost died and how the epidural didn't work and what a record-breaking amount of stitches your episiotomy required! Please tell me anything and everything!


    No, I never asked to hear any of these stories. And yet people told them to me anyway. It is natural, and human, I suppose, to want to share our most frightening experiences with others, if only to make ourselves feel better: I survived, is the message our scariest stories broadcast when we tell them out loud. And few things are more therapeutic to the survivor than talking about their survival.


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    But what about the listener? Does hearing every disturbing gory detail of someone's often unusually horrific medical tale do any good? Most times I would answer a resounding no. No because telling those sorts of stories with no thought to the listener is incredibly insensitive and almost rude, no matter how good the storyteller feels afterward.


    But this is different. Here, given the fact that this is a site women come to voluntarily to seek out this exact sort of information, and given the fact that while my experience was extremely difficult it was overall a good one -- a recovery uncomplicated by infection or any other serious medical issue -- I will provide as many details as possible.





    I also want to provide as many details as possible since last year, in the few days before my surgery, when the reality and the enormity of it was closing in on me and when I turned to the Internet to find patient stories about TRAM flap surgical experiences, all I found were horror stories. Complete and utter horror stories, some of which were based on surgeries that had taken place five or six or seven years ago (before new surgical advances and better techniques were developed); that were performed by unqualified surgeons, and that took place in ill-equipped hospitals. Trolling the Internet right before surgery and finding terrible stories of terrible procedures is not a good thing. It's also not a realistic thing: there are plenty of good (or, non-horrific) stories of breast-reconstruction surgeries that aren't recounted on the Internet.


    So I'm here to tell you my non-horrific though certainly not pleasant story of recovering from TRAM flap surgery in as clear and direct and informative a way as possible. Feel free to post questions along the way and I'll be happy to answer them.







Published On: November 16, 2007