Looking at Boobs From Tammy's Perspective - Breast Cancer, Mastectomy, & Reconstruction
Breast Cancer, Mastectomy, and Reconstruction
By Tammy Hector as told to Jan Pendleton
In May 1995, I lost my left breast. I was 24 years old with two young kids, a full time job, and dreams of a modeling career.
At 24, you don't expect your body to let you down. You are just starting out, your youthful self-confidence all tied up in your body image, your looks, living life. I hadn't always had it easy anyway after losing the most important person in my life, my mother Lulu, when I was 14. But I was healthy, fed, and loved by my wonderful family who picked up where she left off. My aunt and grandmother raised my sister and me. You see, I'm from a long powerful line of strong single moms - my mom, her mom, and my auntie - all strong women who filled me with the steady knowledge that I am special and loved. Even in the worst of it all, I knew deep down that my strength would carry me on.
It was actually a year earlier when I first felt the lump. I was taking a shower and something didn't feel normal. I didn't really think much about it but went on and made an appointment with the doctor. He said the knot was nothing to worry about; to stay off caffeine and to stop eating chocolate and I should be fine. He said I was too young to have cancer; that it was a cyst and it would go away. It was about the size of a dime. I did just what the doctor told me to do. A few weeks went by and nothing happened to its size but the knot began to hurt a little. I called for another appointment and the doctor said he didn't think it was cancer because it wouldn't be painful if it were. He told me again to just give it time to go down. And so more time went by and a few months later the knot began to get bigger and it was painful. This time when I went back to the doctor he set up testing for me at the hospital. The ultrasound and mammogram showed nothing due to the position of the knot so they scheduled me for outpatient surgery to remove the thing that was causing me the discomfort and concern. The biopsy surgery completed, I awaited the doctor's report.
My World Flew Apart
Up to the moment I when heard the biopsy results, everything seemed to move slowly as if I was waiting and wondering, months stuck in the calm before a storm that I couldn't foresee. Then, within a violent flash of 24 hours, my 24-year-old world was swept out from under me as if a mighty rushing wind came through and blew down my dreams, my security, my foundation. I was still standing, but barely under the crashing blow of three words: you-have-cancer. I couldn't breathe, couldn't think as they told me even worse news: "we must remove your breast." Remove my breast?! I'm 24 years old! The doctor said I couldn't have cancer at this age! What about my life? I had just come out of surgery where they were just checking to see what was going on. I was barely awake when I heard I'd be back in surgery the very next day so that doctors could cut off part of my body. My loved ones brought in a doctor close to the family for a second opinion who told me that very day the same ugly words I never imagined I'd hear: "Yes, Tammy, you have breast cancer. A section of the biopsy was malignant and has spread to the lymph nodes. I'm sorry but I have to agree that it is too late. They are admitting you to the hospital to remove your left breast tomorrow."
Everything suddenly sped up and crashed around me. I was confused - for me, for my kids. I was angry, I was hurt, I was mad as hell and I cried until my eyes were swollen shut. Angry at the doctor who let things go for so long that it had come to this. Mad at God for putting me through another huge and very personal loss in my life. Scared of what all this meant for my future and the future of my children. And embarrassed by my now scarred and misshapen body. I was half a woman. Half a very young woman dealing with a disease I had thought only touched old people. Physical and emotional pain became my new life for awhile, the storm still pulling me apart, breaking me down. I settled into a six-month deep depression. I shut down and shut myself in my room; the strong rock of my family kept the pieces together, mothered my kids, nursed me. The depression was killing me more than the actual disease. It took over my life, took away my strength, took my taste for food and for life. Living with the fear that the disease brings will kill you if you let it.
The doctors urged radiation and chemo but I refused. Even in my darkness I felt that I shouldn't do it. I felt deep down in my spirit that I would have died if I had gone through that. The doctors said the cancer would spread without it. I said no. They called my family and my grandmother told the doctor's office, "You don't know Tammy. She's strong-headed!" My mind was set and I guess my strength of spirit was shining through too.
"I fainted, unless I believed to see the goodness of the lord in the land of the living." (Pslams 27:13)
The loving warmth of God and my family shined through my darkness and I began to see some light. The depression began to lift. My life began again but nothing would ever be the same. Before I was told I had cancer and lost my left breast, I was very outgoing and loved to live life to the fullest. Losing a part of my body that is so important to the way I present myself took away that self-confidence. I didn't feel much like a woman. My boyfriend at the time was supportive saying "It doesn't change who you are." But it DID change me! I didn't feel sexy. I wore baggy clothes. I pushed him away. With other men through the years including two husbands, I was hesitant to take off my shirt and I never wore lingerie. I was constantly self-conscious; always asking my family if my clothing looked right on me or if my chest looked like it was even. Whenever I was out somewhere I would get up several times to go to the restroom to check and make sure that the replacement (prosthetic) did not slide out of place. My self-image was trampled and even on the days I felt really good, I never felt pretty. Where was that young woman who had been in fashion shows and dreamed of walking runways? She was locked away…. for 16 years.
Life Changing Possibilities!
Then last year something completely unexpected happened. A friend mentioned breast reconstruction. I'd never considered it before for fear that if I had more surgery they might find something else or stir the cancer cells back up. But some part of me had shifted and this time I allowed myself to imagine what it might be like and to just explore the possibilities. My friend helped me find Dr. Riou who was horrified that the doctor who did the original surgery didn't offer some form of reconstruction; that I had had to live that way so long. He suggested two possible surgeries - one that is a slow reconstruction over time and another that uses belly fat to create a new breast. Well, I had belly fat for sure and I thought that would give me both a breast and a flatter belly for a whole new life.
Oh how I was right! I am definitely living a whole new life now! Dr. Riou added the breast from belly fat and lifted my right breast (which had fallen due to having children) to match the new one. The surgeries were painful, don't get me wrong; especially the belly part. And we're not done because they're going to create a nipple for the breast that they built and then tattoo its pigmentation. But it's been worth the pain. After the reconstruction surgery, I just kept getting out of the hospital bed to go to the mirror and look and cry with such gratitude and amazement that I didn't have to wear anything in my bra anymore, that I was a woman again. I'd just stand there and stare and say "Wow! Look at me!"
You know, I had dreamed for years of being able to shop at Victoria's Secret, dreamed what it would be like to be proud of my body and to have bras and panties that matched (because the "medical-style" bras I had to wear were never pretty.) So before I got fully recovered good I had my auntie take me there and I got two bra and panty sets! Yes, I am getting my sexy back!
Today and Tomorrow
Today, at 41 years old, I'm pursuing my dreams of long ago. I am in modeling school, getting photos made. I have a loving man in my life. I can wear sundresses and swimsuits even! My boyfriend just took me to The Virgin Islands and, for the first time since my early twenties, I wore a swimsuit without an extra large t-shirt to hide what I had lost. I am, like my mother and her mother before her, a strong woman.
At the end of the day, the cancer "storm" didn't really sweep away my hopes and dreams. I am still standing - standing tall and self-assured and I am taking my life back! As a part of that I want to reach out to other strong women who have lost hope and need a reminder that they have it within them to move forward. That's why I want to tell my story. It's not that I feel like my story is any greater than anyone else's, …it's not. But I do feel like my story can help someone and if I just help one person, I am grateful. I believe in myself, I believe in you.