How My Mastectomies Changed My Life … For the Better

I have been reminded frequently on social media that October is breast cancer awareness month.  My personal journey of recovery from double mastectomies 17 months ago has not been an easy one.  As I reflect on the last 17 months, I can see that having mastectomies changed my life … for the better.  This is my story.

Being Diagnosed With BRCA2 Gene Mutation

I was diagnosed with a BRCA2 gene mutation in February 2020.  Having this mutation increases my risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic cancers, melanoma, and in men, prostate cancer.  I was just about to turn 54, the same age my mother died from cancer.  The decision to have prophylactic risk-reducing surgeries was an easy one for me.  I had my ovaries removed in March and bilateral mastectomies in May 2020.

Leading up to those surgeries I was anxious and extremely stressed.  I lost a lot of weight because the fear of getting cancer was overwhelming.  I had had all the screening available – MRI’s, CT scans, Ultrasounds and blood tests for tumour markers.  Even though my tests had all come back negative there was still the fear that the surgeons would find cancer in my breasts or ovaries.  This has happened to many women undergoing prophylactic surgery.

Undergoing Risk Reducing Surgeries

My surgeries were not straightforward.  I had complications after both and I still live with the chronic health issues.  I haemorrhaged after my mastectomies and needed further surgery twice, as well as four blood transfusions.  The recovery from those surgeries lasted months because I wasn’t able to do any exercise for six months due to the risk of swelling.

Prior to those surgeries I was active and able to work.  I walked my dogs 3km per day and did yoga.  Unfortunately I had chronic back pain which prevented me from running and high impact exercise.  I had migraines frequently and felt tired all the time.  Shift work knocked me around and I felt pretty miserable a lot of the time.

Complications Following Surgeries

The first surgery to remove my ovaries uncovered a problem with my bladder and kidneys that had been grumbling along for a long time.  It was a problem that I couldn’t ignore anymore and was the cause of a lot of my chronic back pain.  I now have that issue under control so I actually take it as a blessing that I discovered the problem because if it had been left untreated any longer I would have been really unwell.  My body had been telling me that there was something wrong for months and it took a health crisis to reveal it.

My mastectomies were meant to be a straightforward procedure.  The surgeon planned to remove all my breast tissue, including the nipples, but spare the skin, and insert implants in the same procedure.  The surgery went well but I haemorrhaged on the left side the next day.  I lost a lot of blood, most of it collecting under the skin.  The surgeon took me back to the operating theatre to stem the bleeding.

A Prolonged Recovery From My Mastectomies

The fluid that remains under the skin following a haemorrhage is called a seroma.  That seroma lingered for months, becoming infected and requiring further surgery three months later.  I was under strict doctors’ orders not to exercise because that would increase the risk of further seroma developing.  My surgeon allowed me to gradually increase my walking but everything else was off limits.

I lost a lot of muscle tone during the six months that followed.  This prevented my return to work as a Registered Nurse because I wasn’t able to fulfill my duties, which include being able to perform CPR and patient cares.  I was off work for 11 months in total.  I really struggled with that.  My mental health deteriorated as I felt that my purpose in life was gone.  My role as a nurse meant so much to me after doing it for 35 years that I felt lost without it.

Outpatient Rehabilitation After My Mastectomies

After six months of not exercising, my surgeon finally gave me permission to return to yoga.  Immediately after my first yoga session I had severe muscle pain and cramps.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to get my body strength back without professional help so I asked my GP for help.  He referred me to an Exercise Physiologist.

I had five months of outpatient rehabilitation under her supervision.  My muscles had lost so much condition that I could only improve slowly.  I was in a lot of pain as my muscles regained their strength and my progress was slow.  Despite this I was determined to get strong enough to return to work so I worked hard and over time regained my upper body strength.  I needed to be able to perform CPR which uses multiple muscle groups in your upper body, and when I finally could do that I knew I was ready to return to work.

Building Emotional Resilience During My Recovery

I had been seeing a psychologist to help me to adjust to these massive changes in my life.  I had gone from a healthy, productive member of society to someone who was too unhealthy to work.  My brain was still functioning but my body had let me down.  I had cried buckets of tears during those months off work and I was depressed.  The psychologist has helped me to reframe my thinking, and deal with those negative feelings in a positive way.  I still see her regularly because I feel that she helps me immensely.

I was able to gradually return to work in April.  It was such a huge achievement to reach that goal.  I never realised before how much my job meant to me.  I will never take working for granted again and I appreciate that I have such a supportive boss.  Because I am much fitter now than before my surgeries, working no longer knocks me around like it used to.  I still get fatigued but I now make sure I have a rest instead of pushing through.  

Reaching My Goal of Returning to Work

I really lacked confidence before, even though I had been nursing for a long time.  My confidence grew by going through the rehabilitation process and by achieving a pass mark on a course while I was off work.  I stepped straight back into my role relatively easily, and had the support of my colleagues.  The confidence comes from knowing that I am strong enough to overcome major challenges.  I worked hard to get my life back to normal, and I’m proud of my achievements.

Stronger and fitter after my mastectomies.  Image shows Christina Henry and her dog Banjo, on their daily 3km walk
Stronger and Fitter After My Mastectomies

How My Mastectomies Changed My Life For The Better

I chose resilience as my Word of the Year 2021.  I wasn’t feeling particularly resilient at the start of this year because I was still in the early stages of rehabilitation and was struggling mentally.  By persevering, and achieving that goal, it made me realise that I am resilient.  I have continued to do the exercise regimes set for me by the Exercise Physiologist.  I love the feeling of being strong and fit and I know it helps me manage my daily life better.

Even though my surgeries did not go to plan, and caused life altering issues for me, I do not regret having them done.  I no longer have the fear of getting ovarian or breast cancer as my risk is reduced to less than 1%.  My brother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Prostate Cancer a few months after that so I feel like I dodged a bullet.  I still have to have frequent screening for melanoma and am at risk of pancreatic cancer, but on the whole my health has been greatly improved.

My outlook on life is much more positive now.  I am more relaxed and rarely get a migraine which I attribute to dealing with stress better.  Fortunately, I was always a homebody, and feel blessed to live in such a lovely place after staying home so much during my recovery.  I also had time to spend with the people who mean the most to me, in particular my mother-in-law who passed away in May.  Every cloud has its silver lining, as the saying goes.

Breast Cancer Awareness

If you would like to read more about my story, all my previous posts are listed on my resource page, BRCA Gene Mutation and Cancer Awareness.  Don’t forget that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.  You may like to read these articles:

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How to Perform a Breast Self Examination (and why)

Three photos depicting a woman performing a breast self examination

The statistics on breast cancer are troubling. Even with all the research and new treatments available, there are still 55 new breast cancer diagnoses daily. The most important detection for early breast cancer is regular breast self examination. This post will inform you of how to perform a breast self examination correctly, and other important facts to be aware of.

Early Detection of Breast Cancer Leads to Higher Survival Rates

If breast (and other cancers) are detected early, they have a much higher survival rate. Options for treatment are numerous. At present the five year survival rate for breast cancer is 91% in Australia, and 96% if the cancer is caught early. That is an excellent outcome, but there are still over 5000 deaths yearly. A free breast screening program is available in Australia, but performing breast self examination is still the best way to detect early cancer. It is important to note that males can get breast cancer too, albeit at a much lower percentage than women.

Breast Cancer Statistics.  Source:  National Breast Cancer Foundation Australia
Breast Cancer Statistics. Source: National Breast Cancer Foundation Australia
Breast Cancer Statistics in Australia.  Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, affecting 1 in 7 women and 1 in 675 men.  Source:  National Breast Cancer Foundation
Australian Breast Cancer Statistics. Credit: National Breast Cancer Foundation

How to Perform a Breast Self Examination

If breast cancer is caught early there is a very high chance of survival. A monthly breast self examination is the best way to detect early breast cancer because every woman’s breasts are different. If you know how your breasts usually look and feel, you will be in the best position to identify early changes and seek medical attention. Some breast changes are very subtle so it is important to know what to look for. The most important thing is to check your breasts monthly. Some guides say to do it on the first of every month, and some say after your monthly period ends. Post menopausal women should do theirs on the first of the month.

I have seen a number of ways to perform breast self examination. I have always done mine in the shower with soapy, slippery skin. Some women prefer to do theirs lying down. What matters the most is that you check all parts of your breast including up to your collar bone and under the armpit. Here is an excellent video which shows very clearly the correct procedure:

Breast Self Examination. Credit Madras Institute of Orthopaedics and Traumatology, India

Signs and Symptoms to Watch For During Your

Breast Self Examination

The signs and symptoms to watch for are:

  • Changes in the size or shape of your breast
  • Dimpling or a ‘pulling’ of skin on your breast
  • Any new lumps in the breast or under your arm
  • Breast pain or swelling (pain is rare)
  • Discharge of fluid (except breast milk) from the nipple, including blood
  • Dry, flaky red skin around the nipple area
Signs and symptoms of breast cancer pictorial
Signs and Symptoms of Breast Cancer. Source: ICON

If any of these symptoms are found, make an appointment to see your General Practitioner as soon as possible. Some women have no symptoms and the cancer is found during a routine mammogram or physical examination by a doctor. Mammograms should be done two yearly between the ages of 50 to 74. Breast Screen Australia provides a free screening service for women aged 50 to 74. Free screening is also available for women aged 40 to 49 and over 74, if requested. It is recommended that women with a strong history of breast or ovarian cancer are screened from an earlier age.

If symptoms are found, further testing may be required including ultrasound, biopsy and other scans such as a CT Scan or MRI. Treatments depend on the size and type of tumour, whether it has spread, and your general health.

Preventing Breast Cancer

Some factors that increase your risk of breast cancer include:

  • increasing age,
  • family history,
  • inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA1, BRCA2 and CHEK2
  • Exposure to female hormones (natural and administered)
  • a previous breast cancer diagnosis
  • a past history of certain non-cancerous breast conditions

While you can’t do much about your genetic history, there are lifestyle factors that can impact your chances of getting breast cancer. These include:

  • being overweight
  • not enough physical activity
  • drinking alcohol
  • exposure to radiation

Know Your Breast Cancer Risk

I have written about my own diagnosis of BRCA2 gene mutation, which lead to my bilateral prophylactic mastectomies. It is important to know your risk because the presence of a gene mutation or family history of breast and ovarian cancers, could dramatically increase your risk. My risk before surgery was 60-80% as opposed to the general female population of around 13%. The only effective way I could guarantee that I would not get breast cancer was to have my breast tissue removed. It was a “no brainer” for me – the type of cancer that people with BRCA2 get is often the worst type with a very low survival rate. I did not even want to take that risk.

It has been a life changing decision for me because I had complications – I haemorrhaged post operatively. I’m still recovering 5 months later and have not been able to return to work. It may seem strange to say that I still don’t regret that decision.

I found out this past weekend that my brother has Stage 4 Prostate Cancer, undoubtedly from BRCA2. My mother-in-law has terminal lung cancer and only has a few weeks to live. The high incidence of cancer in my family gives me a lot of anxiety around it. Mum passed away at my age from cancer, and dad died from pancreatic and prostate cancer (BRCA2). My son had a melanoma at 24, and two of my siblings also had melanomas. Some families seem to cop a large burden, and ours is one of them.

Don’t Ignore Symptoms

One of the messages I want to convey is never to ignore symptoms. I have written about this previously in Signs You Need to See a Doctor. Be an advocate for your own health because without it daily life is so much harder.

Please share this article – it may help someone you care for. If you enjoyed this you may like my previous post October is For Breast Cancer Awareness which lists my previous posts about my BRCA2 diagnosis and surgeries.

Note: This post is for general informational and education purposes only. Please refer to my disclaimer.

Shared on Denyse Whelan Blogs Life This Week Linkup

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October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

October is for Breast Cancer Awareness

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month.  I will be featuring breast cancer awareness in my blogs, as well as hereditary cancer.  My focus on cancer awareness this month is due to a passion for health promotion.  I can speak from experience because I have been a Registered Nurse for 30 years as well as having diagnostic tests and multiple surgeries.  

If you have been following Midlifestylist.com you may be aware that I have BRCA2 gene mutation which increases my risk of breast and other cancers.  Both my parents died of cancer – mum was my age, 54.  My father had BRCA2 as well.  He had prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer, and passed away when he was 84.  His father also died of prostate cancer and his sister died of ovarian cancer.  My son and two siblings had melanoma.   Cancer has therefore impacted my life dramatically. 

This year I had prophylactic surgeries to remove my ovaries and breasts.  That is because my chance of getting cancer was so high.  Unfortunately I had complications from both operations and required 3 extra operations.   I’m still recovering and have not been able to return to work since May.

Raising awareness of breast cancer and BRCA2

I can use my blog as an avenue of passing on my knowledge and experience of the impact of cancer and hereditary cancer risk.  Raising awareness will hopefully spare other families from seeing one of their loved ones suffer from cancer.

My previous blog posts about BRCA2 and cancer are:

The first of every month is the day women should perform a breast self examination.  My next post in this series will show you the correct way to perform the breast self examination, and what symptoms to look for.  

Shared on Life This Week Linkup by Denyse Whelan

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