I’m so excited to be home in Jackson, I want to show you my breast. Specifically my right one. That’s the one that got radiated.
If you ask nicely, though, I’ll most likely show you my left one, too, because the reconstructive surgeon did such an amazing job, I kind of want to show off his work. Also, I feel like everyone has already studied, poked and prodded my breasts, so showing a couple more people is no big deal.
But it’s really the right one I want you to see.
Almost without fail, real-life friends and supporters who know me through this column tell me how good I look. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this.
Does it mean I looked like crap before? Does it mean that because I look good, everything should be fine?
Most likely it means someone doesn’t know what to say. I am still figuring out how to respond.
Telling people what they look like doesn’t give them an opportunity to express how they actually are. I can’t follow up a cheery “You look great!” with “Yes, and I spent two hours this morning crying in the shower and staring at a blank screen because I’m trying to decide whether I should have my ovaries taken out or not.”
Also, I don’t really look great. That’s why I want to show you my right breast.
I went through 33 sessions of radiation — five days a week for nearly seven weeks. That “treatment” has seriously messed up my skin.
Each of the three things I did to get rid of cancer — chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation — was painful. And each was painful — physically, emotionally and mentally — in its own unique way.
What radiation has done to my skin is the most physically painful of the three.
My right breast is swollen to double its reconstructed size. And it’s red. Really, really red. Imagine the brightest red sunburn you’ve ever seen. Now magnify that times 100 and put a varnish of fire-engine red on top of it. If the color of my breast were a color of nail polish — nail polish always has the best names — it would be called “Holy Crap That Looks Like It Must Hurt Like Hell.”
That color is not limited to my breast, though. It also colors the lower half of my armpit and a small triangle that wraps around to my back.
Red is not the only color on my right breast now. (By “now” I mean six days after my last radiation treatment, when I’m writing this column.)
New blisters — a couple more still pop up each day — are peach.
Middle-age blisters — about a week old — are yellow with pus.
Patches of skin that cracked instead of blistering are gunmetal gray.
My breast sometimes has a second shade of red on it, too: blood red. Literally. The first time my breast started bleeding, the blood came directly from my nipple. My nipple has never excreted a drop of milk, but it has cried blood. I didn’t notice it until the track of blood extended from my nipple to the bottom of my rib cage.
Since then — the bleeding started around treatment 30 — it’s no longer only my nipple that bleeds. Exiting the shower, I usually have about six to eight bloody spots. I’ve traded my favorite, fuzzy white bath towels for dark gray ones.
Without fail, rubbing the prescription silvadene lotion on my breast causes my nipple and these other areas to bleed. WebMD says silvadene “prevents and treats wound infections in patients with serious burns.”
My right breast is seriously burnt.
When I hike, shirts rub my nipple. (There’s no way I can wear a bra right now even if I had to. And because I have fake breasts I can go the rest of my life without wearing a bra.) Before I learned to wear my darkest shirt, I’d return home with a circle of blood soaked through to the outside of that shirt. I’ve hiked in the same navy blue Ibex Twist-Tee for two weeks now. It smells, but it doesn’t show blood stains.
Most mornings I wake up with whatever top I’ve slept in stuck to me via some combination of blood and pus. One morning my breast oozed enough during the night that the goo went through my shirt to my top sheet, through my top sheet and into my mattress pad. Thankfully, it did not make it past the mattress pad.
Looking at this puss-y, oozing mess, I’m thankful for the first time since my double mastectomy that I cannot feel my breasts. I can only imagine how painful that would be. Dealing with the itching and pain from the burns I have in areas I do have feeling — my armpit, just below my breast and on my back — is enough. And those areas aren’t burned nearly as badly as my breast itself.
You’ve heard the saying about rubbing salt in a wound? I’m trying to keep active through this — exercise is my meditation and self-medication. But whoever knew sweating could be so painful?
Radiation typically causes fatigue. I’ve been fortunate I haven’t had that. But whenever I go out for a hike, run or ride, my armpit sure wishes I did.