One year later…

One year ago, on March 25, 2019, I got the call that I have cancer. There aren’t many calls in life that can change your life so dramatically in an instant, but this was one of them. I went from living a normal happy life one day, to being a cancer patient the next.

Throughout all of my treatments and surgeries, I powered forward, never allowing myself to think about unfavorable outcomes. I took it day by day, treatment by treatment, doctor visit by doctor visit. There were days I cried and days I felt great, but overall I just wanted to check 16 chemo treatments off and get through it all.

Well, here we are exactly one year later and I can happily say that I did check those boxes off, had two surgeries, and am now cancer free. When I look back on the last year, I realize how much I have learned about myself in adversity and that even horrible things like getting breast cancer can have silver linings.

During my time going through it all, many friends reached out about different organizations that I should reach out to. One that caught my eye was 5 Under 40, which was dedicated to providing women under 40 (me) with breast cancer (me) or the BRCA gene (me) with medical, beauty, wellness and educational services. Aside from the organization connecting me with a celebrity makeup artist who taught me how to put eyebrows and eyelashes, I loved the group meetups and talking to other women going through very similar things as me.

Now, one year later, I am proud to say I am Executive Director of 5 Under 40 and am able to take everything I’ve learned and pass it along to other women. My new normal is talking to women daily who need help navigating these new, uncharted waters and helping them in any way we can. From wig shopping, to mental health counseling, I’m happy that I can now help others.

Most importantly, I’m happy for my health and my family. My older son Aidan said to me the other day, “Mommy, are your boo boos on your boobies all better?” and I was so proud to say yes.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my husband Matt who has been an incredible rock during all of this, handling everything with amazing balance and knowing what I needed and when I needed it. On our wedding day in his vows, he said that he would be my rock, and like a rock, I might want to throw him sometimes. Well, he was right on with both, but I couldn’t be luckier to have him as my rock. I love you.

I am so grateful for the rest of my family, friends, friends of friends that all reached out and helped me through the last year. I can’t even express how much it all meant and I am beyond thankful to have such amazing people in my life.

1 year down, forever to go. #Shaystrong

Preparing for Reconstruction

It has been a while since my last post, almost 9 weeks, and a lot has happened.

I have continued going to get my “fills” and my breasts have steadily increased in size. Right after each fill, my chest and back feel very tight. It is uncomfortable and makes sleeping at night a challenge, but it feels normal after a day or two. The tissue expanders are extremely stiff, my breasts don’t move at all. It feels like I am wearing a really tight bra that I can’t take off.

In total, I have had 6 fills, totaling about 360ccs (I’m not sure the exact number). When I have my reconstruction surgery, I don’t know exactly what size implants Dr. Choi will put in. They way she explained it to me, she will have 3 different sets of implants to choose from, similar to the size I have now, and will test them out during surgery and choose the ones that she thinks look best. We have discussed the look that I am hoping for and I trust that she will choose the right pair.

It is crazy how cancer can go from completely taking over your calendar, to slowly slipping away. Cancer used to be in control of my schedule. Everything was based around my weekly treatments, shots, appointments and the side effects that would come after. It was consuming. During my treatments, I would meet with my oncologist every week and spend at least one day each week at NYU. Since my mastectomy, I have had one follow-up appointment with my surgeon and oncologist and now will see them every 6 months. I have been seeing my plastic surgeon every week or two but once reconstruction is over, my appointments with her will dwindle as well. It feels like I am slowly gaining control of my calendar and my life.

My reconstruction surgery is one week away and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I am so excited to get this surgery over with, have my expanders out, and be able to put my breast cancer behind me. I am also looking forward to a couple of days resting in bed, binge watching shows that I need to catch up on (Cheer, Peaky Blinders…). On the other hand, it feels like I am taking a step backwards. After my mastectomy, it took weeks for me to get my range-of-motion and strength back. I couldn’t lift my kids, be alone with them, take them to school, etc. for weeks. I have loved feeling back to “normal” and am a little sad to be going back to “recovery mode”. It was extremely difficult for me to accept my physical limitations and ask for help. I have heard that recovery from reconstruction is much easier than from a mastectomy, but until I experience it for myself, I don’t know how I am going to feel.

In the last 9 weeks I have: celebrated a friends wedding, gone on vacation to Aruba, gotten back into Pilates, taken on more of my “mom” roles, supported others through their cancer diagnoses, and accepted a new job (more on that later). I am feeling totally back to normal and it is such a relief to be feeling this way. I am hoping that my surgery next week comes with minimal discomfort and a quick recovery. Wish me luck.

Mastectomy, 3

After getting back from Miami, we started the next phase of my treatment journey – reconstruction.

I met with Dr. Choi and Brooke on Tuesday afternoon (Day 22). They were very pleased with how I was healing and said that I was ready to start “filling”.

As part of my mastectomy, after all of my breast tissue was removed by Dr. Axelrod, Dr. Choi placed a tissue expander in each breast. The tissue expanders are basically like temporary empty breast implants that will gradually get filled up with saline until they are eventually exchanged for a real breast implant.

Some people decide to go direct to implant (immediate reconstruction), and avoid having a second surgery to exchange the expanders for implants, but I think there are some benefits to doing it this way. First, gradually filling the expanders allows my skin to stretch slowly instead of being shocked by a full implant. Second, I don’t know exactly how big I want my implants to be and the process of filling up the expanders allows me to see my breasts at different stages as they grow.

There are a few downsides to delayed reconstruction.

  1. This process takes longer. My exchange surgery is not until the end of January and I will have my expanders in until then. If I had immediate reconstruction, I would already have my implants.
  2. Tissue expanders are uncomfortable. They don’t look or feel like real boobs or implants. They poke in spots, are really hard, and my chest feels really tight, especially after a fill. They aren’t evenly placed and look lopsided. All of this is normal and just part of the process.
  3. I have to have another surgery, which means another recovery period.

After weighing the pros and cons, my doctors and I felt that delayed reconstruction was the right choice.

So, during today’s appointment, I experienced my first “baby fill”. A full “inflation” is 60 ccs in each breast and today I got 30 ccs in each. The way that it works is that Brooke held this magnet device over my breast until it indicated that she found the “port” of the expander. Then, she poked a needle into the port and slowly pushed a syringe of saline into the expander. It is not painful as it is happening (I have no feeling in my breasts), but afterwards I could immediately feel a tightness in my chest. The tightness lasted for about two days. It was more uncomfortable at night and made sleep a bit challenging, but it went away.

from breastcancer.org

Getting my first fill was exciting. After having to go through chemotherapy and surgery, we are finally at the fun part! Though this isn’t the route I had anticipated for getting new boobs, getting to this stage means that the worst is over. The reconstruction phase is all about aesthetics and getting back to feeling good in my own skin. Aside from breast reconstruction, my hair is growing back, my energy is coming back, and I am starting to feel like myself again.