*A continuation of Cortney’s journey through a preventative double mastectomy which began in Cortney’s Story: Part 1
What support have you had throughout your decision to have a double mastectomy?
My husband has fought this fight right alongside me. To keep me from the stress and anxiety, he handled all the insurance paperwork and many of the never-ending insurance related phone calls. He also fought (and won) a long legal battle over my insurance’s attempt to not cover my surgery. He has been an empathetic friend, a compassionate caregiver, and an encouraging cheerleader when I needed it. He has campaigned tirelessly to disprove any fear I had about losing any of my beauty after the surgery. It has been equally tough on him to watch me in pain but he is the first to remind me that we are almost done with the process that will hopefully keep me around for a very long time.
My kids have been so understanding and helpful. My 7 year old even learned to change my drains all by himself! My 9 year old daughter has been my loving encourager, by brushing my hair and giving me bible verses to get me through the rough days.
My sister and father have been amazing supporters, caregivers and stand-in “moms” for me. Most importantly, they back me up on my decision, even when people think it seems radical. They understand because they’ve been there. They’ve seen what havoc cancer can wreak on a family and they don’t want that for us. They knew exactly what to do to take care of me because they’ve been through the recovery process before, too many times.
In addition to my family support, I have an incredible community of girlfriends who surrounded me and took care of me. It was a tough thing to allow my friends to do my dirty dishes, fold my laundry, drive me around, and take my kids for days on end. For the first 2 weeks, my amazing friends and family had to do so much for me! My friend created a Care Calendar and arranged two visits per day for me plus someone to bring my family dinner at night. They surprised me with gifts, flowers and recovery supplies when I came home from the hospital and even paid for my house to be professionally cleaned. It was incredible and honestly, necessary. I was so humbled at their thoughtfulness and support. I am so blessed with the friendships God has put in my path.
Lastly, I was linked up with a network of Bright Pink women who had already undergone the surgery. I also had friends and acquaintances who were more than happy to recount their mastectomy stories with lists of things I would need to prepare for. They were amazing. All of the women answered endless questions and late-night emergency texts. They bought me products to prepare me for a more comfortable recovery that were specific to my surgery, like mastectomy pillows, button-up tops and special sports bras. Everyone who has undergone a mastectomy knows the difficulty and discomfort of the process and I was overwhelmed by how helpful everyone was. There is definitely an immediate sisterhood, a bond that you share when you go through something like this. I even had someone I’d never met before contact me and offer to come over and change my drains! I spent hours on the phone with these helpful and encouraging women giving me advice, instructions and sharing their personal stories.
How has this process been on you emotionally, physically, and spiritually?
Emotionally, when you look in the mirror at a chest that is completely bruised, with huge scars and drains and a pain pump still hanging from it, it is shocking. I had two very rough days where I wept at the heaviness of the whole process. However, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, at all. I’d like to give God the glory for that, since I’ve had so many loving friends praying for me!
Physically, it sucks! I’m not gonna lie. Even though I sailed through surgery with no problems, I’ve wrestled through some very painful days since then. I know I have uncomfortable days ahead of me but I constantly remind myself that it is only temporary. Although the pain has been great at times, it has never been more than I could bear. God has shown Himself faithful to walk with me and heal me as we take each day, one at a time.
A constant theme that has run throughout each stage of my life is this, “God is faithful. He never changes and He never leaves us to go through it alone.” He knows my story, He is never surprised. A friend reminded me recently that God loves the meaning my life has, its potential, its beauty, ALL of it! Joshua 29 says that “He has plans to give us a hope and a future.” I’m also learning that it is not about me. My story, even though it is mine, is God’s and He will not relent until He is glorified because I gave him my heart a long time ago. His focus/desire is my greatest potential and despite me, He draws me to His greatness and the reality that His will will be done.
God wants to heal us so we can live for Him but sometimes that doesn’t always mean healing our body. Many times I have asked for physical healing for myself or loved ones and instead, my healing comes as peace, patience, or a greater understanding. We conjure up a vague reality of ourselves that we think we can control when we really can’t. I am always drawn back to Jesus when I try to grab ahold of the pen from the writer of my story. He has so much more in store for us than we could ever ask or imagine.
What will you suggest for your daughter as she gets older?
Hopefully by the time she is older we will have a cure, or at least more information about what causes cancer so we can take less drastic preventative measures. Honestly, I can’t even bear the thought of her facing major surgery and possible complications that come with it and someone cutting her precious skin. She actually came into my room one day during my recovery and told me that someday she wants to have the surgery too, if she is also high-risk. Even at 9 years old, she is old enough to weigh the pros and cons. Unfortunately, she has had too much firsthand experience with breast cancer as she has four grandmothers diagnosed. My mother-in-law was diagnosed the day after Kieran was born, so she faces it on both sides of the family.
What do you wish you would have known before the surgery?
I wish I would have known earlier how much help I would need, all day, throughout the day in the first 2 weeks. I didn’t find out until my pre-op appointment that I would need someone to change my drains twice a day, make my lunch, help me get dressed and undressed, wash and dry my hair, take me on walks, etc. I also wish I would have known that I wasn’t going to be able to drive for a month! Everyone heals differently, but they didn’t allow me to drive until I was a full month post-op. Friends had to drive me to the myriad of appointments including post-operation visits for each surgeon, expansions, and physical therapy visits.
I wish I had known about Bright Pink earlier in my journey. I only joined in December of last year and it has been so beneficial to me throughout this process. I don’t think I could have done it without the wisdom, experience and support I’ve received from those girls.
Where are you now in your recovery?
I chose a nipple-sparing, prophylactic double-mastectomy with an expansion phase which means two separate surgeries, four months apart. The first surgery I had in late April removed all my breast tissue and replaced it underneath the muscle with what is called an expander, which is an empty plastic bag that can be inflated. I had 3 separate “fills” of saline into my expanders until they got to be the general size I’m happy with. The expander takes 3 months to stretch out my pectoral muscles to accommodate the eventual implant they will swap it out for in my second surgery in September. The expansions were the most painful part physically and I am through it, so the worst is definitely behind me! Yeah!
I’m also so grateful to have had an opportunity to be reconstructed. Years ago, that wasn’t even an option. I’ve seen some of the “finished products” of reconstruction on women in my Bright Pink group and it really is amazing what surgeons can do now! I was able to keep my nipples and only have scars on the underneath/sides of each breast and some tiny scars where the drains were. The expanders are not very “natural” looking and are super-uncomfortable but they are only temporary, they come out in a few months. Almost there!
What advice would you give another woman in a similar situation as you?
Every woman is different even though our risks are similar. We all have taken different paths to get to this diagnosis and each person’s journey may lead them to different treatment options. For me personally, prevention was better than treatment. I’d rather be proactive than reactive with my health and I can honestly say I have no regrets. I may have possibly prevented my loved ones from experiencing the same tragedy that I went through, and that feels good. I am reminded every morning when I wake up to my loving husband and precious kiddos that I made the right decision. The pain is temporary and it has made me stronger, bolder.
Be your own health advocate…treasure your chest! Even though science has advanced so much in the past few years, tumors still go undiagnosed. Just this year I met a cancer patient at a National Breast Reconstruction Day event who had a mass the doctor said they thought “looked benign” for years in ultrasounds and mammograms, but actually wasn’t. Yeah- that still happens.
Talk to your doctor about seeing a Genetic Counselor. Your counselor will asses your general risk and recommend if you need to be tested for the BRCA gene or not. Knowledge is power and information is beneficial, not burdensome. The more you know about breast cancer, the better equipped you are to live proactively and reduce your risk. You are not alone. Go to http://www.brightpink.org and get information, tools, resources and personal support to help you take the next step toward risk-reduction and early detection! Also, please feel free to use me as a resource. I would love to help anyway I can.
*We are so thankful to Cortney for gifting us with this powerful story. We invite you to engage her story in the comments section below. May all of our reflections and comments bring honor to the beauty of her story.