What to expect when you have a mastectomy

Fiona, post op. Picture: Fiona Brownlee
Fiona, post op. Picture: Fiona Brownlee
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It was the MRI that did it. Everything else was reassuringly OK but the damn MRI ‘lit up’ and suddenly my status changed.

More tests and a new consultant. The best. In the world. New consultant supremely confident and extraordinarily reassuring. Cancer didn’t seem so bad after all. What’s a spot of grade 2 invasive lobular cancer between friends? Together we can deal with it.

Fiona post op, with her two daughters.

Fiona post op, with her two daughters.

It was a huge relief to have a plan. Diaries out and dates booked for a sentinel node biopsy followed by a mastectomy. Life was looking up. I was practically jubilant as I left his office and went to fill in the pre op forms.

Two days later I strolled into the waiting room. In retrospect it was quite a good practise run for major surgery. The pre op chats with anaesthetist, nurse and surgeon were all the same. The fitting of the glamorous surgical stockings and hospital gown.

I walked to the theatre and hopped on to the bed. The assistant anaesthetist chatted to me as her colleague put a needle in my left hand and an hour later I woke up feeling great and carried on the conversation. A week later I heard that the lymph nodes were clear. It hadn’t spread.

READ MORE - What to expect when you are tested for breast cancer

Unfortunately I didn’t feel quite so perky when I came out of seven hours surgery post mastectomy.

Far from chatting happily I begged for a bowl before I threw up into the oxygen mask. The oxygen mask was replaced with tubes up my nose which made being sick much easier.

The surgeon recommended an anti-nausea patch behind my ear which worked almost instantaneously and I was wheeled jubilantly to the ward attached to a catheter (bliss for anyone who normally needs to get up in the night to go to the loo) and a morphine drip (bliss for altogether different reasons).

They wrestled me into a crisp white sports bra which I have to wear 24/7 to help my newly formed boob keep its shape – and allowed my anxious husband to see me. I have no recollection.

The following three days passed in a blur of morphine and hospital meals. The surgeon popped in occasionally and seemed very pleased with his work. The nurses who checked me every few hours seemed equally pleased with my progress.

I began to feel rather clever. I posted a picture of myself on Facebook still with tubes up my nose. Flowers arrived. Cards galore. It was a bit like having given birth without the hassle of having to look after a small baby. I was able to shower. After two days I was even allowed out to watch my children in a swimming competition to celebrate my birthday.

Dosed up to the eyeballs with morphine and the ‘drain bag’ slung jauntily over my shoulder – red fluid draining through tubes from the wounds on my back and my right breast – I must have terrified the other swimmers.

The following afternoon I was discharged. That is when I realised how many drugs I was on. Typing felt as though I’d consumed a couple of bottles of wine. Conversation was exhausting. I really empathise with how old people must feel when visitors come and natter at them when all they want to do is dose off.

Four days later I returned to hospital to get the dressings removed and looked in horror at the scars on my back where the muscle had been removed to reconstruct my breast.

The four year old now shrieks and calls it ‘mummys back monster’. Under my arm – already pretty messed up by the lymph node tests – is a mess of tendons, lumps and scarring. My breast actually looks pretty good. As far as I can gather the surgeon temporarily removed the nipple, scooped out the bad and refilled it with fat from all over my body.

Literally. I am black and blue on my legs and tummy where liposuction was used to find fat for filler. I am full of renewed respect for anyone who has plastic surgery.

Most of all though I am full of respect for the medical profession. Everyone who treated me at every stage of this quick but rather dramatic journey has been amazing. I cannot express my gratitude for them all, or for the selfless people who raise money to support cancer patients.

Before surgery I was told it was pretty much a given that I would need radiotherapy and over 50 per cent chance of chemo so I was astounded to be given the all clear a week after leaving hospital. The surgeon seemed to be as staggered as I was.

It’s a miracle. I am truly, truly grateful and my heart goes out to everyone who currently has cancer. I know how lucky I am to have a happy ending.

Follow Fiona Brownlee on Twitter @brownlee_donald

Race for Life in support of Cancer Research takes place in Edinburgh on Sunday 19 June

The Moon Walk is this weekend. For more information about Walk the Walk visit walkthewalk.org