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Breast cancer: Surgery
October 12th, 2010
09:21 AM ET

Breast cancer: Surgery

This week, Amanda Enayati shares the milestones of a life-altering journey that began the day she learned she had late-stage breast cancer more than three years ago.

The mastectomy of my right breast took place in September 2007. Because the tumor was enormous, they also had to remove some muscle from my right chest so that they could make sure they had “clean margins” around the mass.

Would you believe that I really wasn’t fearful going into the operation? And though my breasts were probably one of my nicest features, I wasn’t particularly traumatized about losing one, either. I’m still not.  To me, it was a matter of: It’s diseased and so it’s got to go. Frankly, I still feel attractive. I know women whose continuing refusal to remove their cancer-ridden breasts became tantamount to suicide. I don’t relate to that kind of attachment to your breasts but I am able to understand it. Really, do we need to look any further than the images we’re constantly force-fed by our media to understand why not having breasts is unthinkable to some women?

I don’t remember much about the morning we all drove down to Stanford hospital to check in for my operation. My dad was driving the car, I think. My husband, sister-in-law and best friend were there. My mother stayed home with the babies.

It was a somber ride. I may or may not have tried to lighten the mood, I don’t recall. I wouldn’t be surprised if my father did crack some jokes. He’s a tall, lanky, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. Always has been. Which is why it is so heartbreaking that the last thing I remember is sitting in a wheelchair, being wheeled backwards, a door closing on my dad and his smile melting into tears in one fluid movement.

At this point, they had given me the meds already. I don’t remember anything else.

Until I woke up.

I woke up at the bottom of a well. It was dark and then there was some light and there were people peeking down the well shaft, talking down at me from far away. And then it went dark again.

I woke up once more and my mother was sitting to my left. I couldn’t move. But even worse, I couldn’t breathe.

Somehow I had never noticed that it takes so much effort to breathe. That you must raise your chest. Expand your lungs. Inhale. Then exhale. I had trouble doing all of those. So I was taking short, shallow breaths that required minimal physical exertion but which meant that I never felt completely satisfied with the amount of air I was taking in. I was starving for air. Like how I imagine a drowning person might feel.

Every part of my body hurt.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t move.

I was in this world, our world, the one we are all inhabiting. But only by a thread. And part of me was aware that I was slipping away. So I did the only thing I could think of. I reached over and grabbed my mother’s hand and held on for my life so that I wouldn’t drift off. Because—and only because—my kids were still here in this world and not the next.

Tomorrow: High risk of recurrence

Amanda Enayati’s work has appeared in Salon, the Washington Post, Detroit News, and "Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora" (University of Arkansas Press). You can follow her on Twitter @AmandaEnayati or her daily blog, practicalmagicforbeginners.com.

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Filed under: Cancer

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Gort01

    Women with Epilepsy SHOULDNT BE CONCEIVING....omg are we that insipid to think a woman with a disease that destroys a little brain with every seizure and takes medications that are...a.t best mind numbing...has any business getting pregnant....someone tell me Im not the only one thinking this

    October 12, 2010 at 10:19 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Angie64

      How stupid can YOU be.... I am 46 and have been epileptic since the age of 11. I have 2 grown daughters 2 who have graduated college and one still attending. I have seizures every 8 or 10 years and to quite frank while part of my brain is injured with each seizure I have managed to receive 2 bachelors in 1 masters degree... not to mention that I graduated highschool at the age of 15 having been double promoted 2 times. I am also sure that I am not the onmly woman with epilepsy to acheived such goals,

      October 12, 2010 at 12:33 | Report abuse |
    • erica1112

      Sounds like you're the one who had the mother that took dangerous medications while pregnant with you. My first cousin has severe epilepsy and cannot work outside of the home. However, she has two healthy, adult sons who have never had so much as a headacle. You should get your facts correct before pretending to know everything.

      October 12, 2010 at 13:58 | Report abuse |
    • markglicken

      It is amazing how quickly the Medics will lop of the breast of a cancer patient. The like to lop off the healthy ones too as a preventative measure. Truly a shame.

      October 13, 2010 at 04:47 | Report abuse |
    • Dream your Dreams, Everyone!

      According to you, no one with a serious illness should pursue their life-long dream of becoming a parent? Wait until it happens to you or your daughter, sister, niece, or cousin.

      Let's support others in their dreams instead of being judgmental. Physical illness has nothing to do with parenting ability.

      October 13, 2010 at 08:45 | Report abuse |
    • Yentl Neerg

      omg Gort01. Next time you go the doctor, pick up one of the pamlets laying around. They are very informative, and cover a variety of topics. Maybe read a bit more, get out of the house. There is a whole new world out there. oops, and some of the people in it may have epilepsy. Be careful...they look just like you and me.

      October 13, 2010 at 11:53 | Report abuse |
  2. kdavis1163

    Um, not sure what they gave this woman for her mastectomy surgery. I had the same surgery last October, same breast removed, and sure, I woke up in some pain, but it was really minimal compared to what I thought it would be. And I didn't wake up in a dark hole and unable to breathe or feel like I was only hanging onto this world by a thread. I just demanded some ice packs for my chest and they hooked me up to a morphine pump, and the next morning I went home. Some women just want the whole experience of their breast cancer to seem to be a huge deal to everyone else. I feel for this woman with end stage cancer, I really do. But her blogging would scare other women that are already afraid to have a mastectomy. And it's not anything to be afraid of, but dying of breast cancer is.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kei

      Did you also require a portion of your muscle to be removed? The mastectomy alone probably didn't cause the difficulty breathing. The sudden lack of muscle that typically moves with each breath is probably what caused it, which also would add a great deal of extra pain.

      October 12, 2010 at 12:10 | Report abuse |
    • lfutrell

      I agree, this blog would scare me too. I just underwent a radical bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breast) followed by immediate reconstruction a week ago today (Tuesday 10/5). However, from the time I left my pre-op room until I woke up I don't remember anything. When I woke up after a 12 hour surgery I was groggy to say the least, but I didn't feel any pain. Just felt constricted with bandages, and had 4 drains. The flipside of NOT having a mastectomy is possible death and a poor quality of life as the cancer can often matastecize and go to other organs and parts of your body.

      The deep dark hole was never an issue for me. I had five day hospital stay with two days in ICU and the rest in a normal room. Overall, I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to have surgery to save my life. Ladies, get your mammograms and check-ups.

      October 12, 2010 at 12:38 | Report abuse |
    • Katie

      I agree with you. I had the same surgery in 2005. That was after 8 chemo's then followed by 1 year of herceptin and 35 rounds of rads. I honestly thought the surgery was not that bad, and if I could have gone home that day, I would have...drains and all. The reconstruction surgery, that took about a year, was tougher. I was stage 3 when it was found on December 23, 2004. I am now approaching my 6 year mark, and to be honest, I don't really think about it much. Life is good.

      October 12, 2010 at 15:30 | Report abuse |
    • Lee Goldberg

      I had a mastectomy nearly 2 years ago. Maybe I was lucky but woke a bit "high" but quite hungry and ready to watch Monday night football. I was most disappointed that dinner was jello, frozen fruit pop, broth and cranberry juice. I was not in pain – discomfort but not pain. (For me the drain and trying to turn over in bed were the worst parts. ) I honestly was surprised given that I thought I would be in major pain. I had the operation on a Monday and Tuesday morning was sent home. I wish every mastectomy-bound woman the same luck and cancer-free years I have had.

      October 12, 2010 at 16:04 | Report abuse |
    • rs1201

      Ladies, my son is a breast cancer surgeon fellowship trained at Yale/New Haven. Even if I'm his mother, I have to say that he's one of the kindest, most compassionate human being you could come across. He has told me that as serious as breast cancer is, the surgery is almost routine and with very little disfiguration. Most of the time, he said that he does the reconstruction himself if he gets the patient's consent. The survival rate is pretty good as long as the patient is carefully followed. I really don't like the fact that this article may scare women away from a proper diagnosis and care.

      October 12, 2010 at 20:06 | Report abuse |
    • Patricia

      I had a stage 3 breast cancer with 4 lumps the biggest was 3 inches.the week before I slipped and fell and tore my shoulder muscle -all on the same side and when I did my surgery I didnt need ice or pain meds.in fact I just need a small amount to get to sleep.after surgery I started doing small exercises right after I went to recover room to get the blood flowing and not to pool in my arm sence my shoulder wasnt to be fixed untill after my chemo and radition.I think it has a lot to do with mind over matter.

      October 12, 2010 at 21:34 | Report abuse |
    • pazyfe

      Had a lumpectomy last week, went in with God, held His hand during, left with God and my sister drove the car, and I am still with God. All I know is that my life must go on, I live, love, laugh, and appreciate life even more. Let His name be glorified.

      October 12, 2010 at 21:35 | Report abuse |
    • Yentl Neerg

      I would like to state that one of the very first things my doctor advised me of was what NOT to do. I did not ask other women about thier experience. I asked them for support, my friends for support, my family for love, and I read the books I was told to read about my particular type of breast cancer. Every women's story is valid and different. I, like you, did not feel all that traumatized at the time. One year, and 8 surgeries later, I completely broke down. I am pleased to hear that you soldiered through. Many of us do. Some may have difficulties during surgery that we did not experience, for a myriad of reasons.
      I do not think we all want to be melodramatic. But Cancer is dramatic. So is loosing a body part. Be happy that you had an outcome that was a good one. Many of us do not.

      October 13, 2010 at 11:25 | Report abuse |
    • lewannatah

      I agree. I had the same procedure just 3 weeks ago. Same breast. Same month. I experienced pain afterwards, especially when I had to do the arm lifting exercises and I wasnt able to lay on the side for about a week. However, I did not feel as if I was at the bottom of a well or gasping for breath, when I woke up from the surgery. Everything went fine. Im with you, I was afraid of the cancer in my breast and I was anxious to get it out of me. Surgery part is nothing to be afraid of . This blog only increases the fear in those who are already afraid of getting a mastectomy. I agree.

      October 13, 2010 at 13:53 | Report abuse |
  3. kristi

    soooo then i'm guessing you did NOT have some chest muscle removed or whatever it is they did to her. maybe you had a smaller tumor? really bugs me how whenever someone's talking about their experience, some fool pops up to contradict, just for the hell of it. this is HER experience. glad you had a good one, sheesh!

    October 12, 2010 at 11:44 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yentl Neerg

      If you read my post and thought I had a good experience, then I did not clarify very well.
      I did not want to discourage the women sharing her story, or anyone commenting from sharing theirs.. I felt the tone of some of the comments made one think the writer was hysterical.
      I am pleased so many have had a good experience. I will tell you that I would do it all again, to be at this point in my life.
      Her story may sound scary. But, hell...she is here to tell it.

      October 13, 2010 at 12:34 | Report abuse |
  4. Laura

    Until you go through something like this, you then can understand how it feels. Everyones journey is different.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. NAOMA FOREMAN

    Around 14 years ago I had a partial mastectomy; 6 months later the other breast was diagnosed with cancer. Had both
    removed. No "reconstruction." Doctor told me "radiation or chemo would DO YOU NO GOOD." I just assumed I was going
    to die. But, I had no radiation or chemo and have been fine ever since. I wonder why my doctor said that - and all the
    women who have chemo and radiation. I have not had a problem. My doctor DISAPPEARED, after that day and has not
    been seen since. Still a mystery, but I am and have been just fine.

    October 12, 2010 at 11:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ituri

      Some cancers are helped with radiation and chemo, but some are NOT very vulnerable to those treatments. Its possible your doctor knew it was the latter? As for the disappearance, how odd. Forgot to notify patients of a move? I'd have a full check-up with a new doctor, just to make sure nothing was missed, and yes, be glad you didn't have to go through chemo or radiation. They do help some cancers, but they're not something you *want* to have to go through... my mother was saved by them, so I won't speak ill, but they are NOT easy treatments to go through.

      October 12, 2010 at 13:00 | Report abuse |
  6. Pat Savu

    Yeah I did not have my chest wall removed either with my mastectomy but I did have the lymph nodes in my armpit removed, and I don't remember much pain at all. Removing my wisdom teeth was much more painful. I jsut want other women to realize that a msatectomy doesn't have to be a painful as described. Two years after my original mastectomy I had my other heathy breast removed because of all the breast cancer in my family. Same thing; not bad. Chemotherapy is much more draining. And loosing your hair is more tramatic than having a mastectomy.

    I wake up from surgery in the recovery room and realize where I am because I can hear other people puking. Then I fell like I am goign to blowup because I am fulll of urine and need a bedpan urgently.

    October 12, 2010 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Cancer Survivor

    I am a recent breast cancer survivor that tried finding different types of treatment. It was hard attempting to find a company that cared about the patient and not the money. I found this non-profit organization called NCCN (http://www.nccn.com/). They had a great deal of cancer treatment options, cancer information and MANY references (21 cancer institutions) for clinical trials! I wouldn't be here today without them! 🙂

    October 12, 2010 at 12:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ituri

      Thanks for the good references, and I'm glad you're still around to share them. ^_^

      October 12, 2010 at 13:02 | Report abuse |
  8. Joe Bott

    My wife had a double masectomy on Tuesday of last week after her mamogram showed a small mass in her left breast two week before that . The biospy indicated her's was stage one , agressive, invasive . We were given all the options for treatment and elected for the bi-lateral . No messing around , "off " with the breasts! , post -biopsy was clean and she is moving toward reconstruction. She was released from the hospital on the day after and has been pain free, ( of course she was on pain meds for four days see is off now. Its been one week , she still has two of her four drains remaining but outside of those she is doing phenominal , she can drive , walk , shower . bake cooklies ( they ROCK!) and is doing the laundry now ( Yay!) .. Our anticapation of abundant agony and misery was unfounded. We are happy campers .

    October 12, 2010 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Linda Morales

      Your wife is lucky to have such a great, understanding husband.

      October 13, 2010 at 00:31 | Report abuse |
  9. erica1112

    My hats are off to all those who go through this, or any other type of cancer. Everyone's reaction to diagnosis, surgery, recovery, etc., is personal and unique. But seriously, can we please give some credit to the writer of the article who was brave enough to share her story? I have four people in my immediate circle who are all fighting the good fight. Everyone fights differently. Some lay down and do nothing, and others are warriors. So we can all learn from this and either be a vicTIM or VICTOR. The difference is two letters.

    October 12, 2010 at 14:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. MAC

    This woman is not brave for sharing her story, it just so happens that her way of "fighting" cancer involves writing about it so she gets a pretty penny.

    October 12, 2010 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yentl Neerg

      MAC....you don't know anything about her, her story, her money, other than what she has chosen to share. If you don't like her story, move on.

      October 13, 2010 at 12:16 | Report abuse |
  11. Linda

    As someone diagnosed with advance stage breast cancer, I had to have a mastectomy. Because the cancer had spread to my chest wall, they had to remove the muscles. I have been in pain for the last 5 years. I am still here and thank God everyday. But the pain was tremendous after this surgery. I had a lumpectomy before the mastectomy. The pain level was high with that because the surgeon had a very difficult time removing my lymph nodes post chemo. They were fused together and the surgery for him was as he stated "the hardest removal he has had to do." So until you experience the same type of cancer, the same circumstances involved with they surgery – don't criticize. Everyone is different. And having cancer of ANY type is frightening.

    October 12, 2010 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Thurston Murray

    I am very happy for you, keep hope on your mind, and present a positive attitude. I had a Radical Mestectomy in 1983, followed by 23 radiation treatments.(Never had one on Saturday or Sunday–I suppose cancer never grows on weekends. A sense of humor also is important for a lifetime of recovery.
    People are still amazed that I have survived Male Breast Cancer for 28 years, but having a lot of muscle out with the cancer most likely saved my life, as well as my wife telling me she would kill me if I died!! My daughter was born after my treatment and I do not have the BRACA Genes..she is relieved and is studying very hard in Medical School–Life is good.

    October 12, 2010 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Pat

    Pehaps this blog should also inspire some women to get the lump checked sooner, when it's smaller, rather than later. Many cancers have virtually the same survival rate with lumpectomies as mastectomies. I was able to have a lumpectomy five years ago and was lacing up my running shoes two weeks later– less pain, short recovery, and significantly less financial burden. The chemo was tough, but my physical condition was much better due to a less invasive surgery.

    October 12, 2010 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Laua

      Pat-it seems as though her tumor was deep within the tissue and near the muscle and chest wall based on the removal of the muscle as well for clear margins, so getting lumps checked sooner is not always a possibility if the lump can't be noticed. I had one that was deep within the tissue that was missed by self exam and only found through ultrasound and mammogram. I was diagnosed in 2007 at age 31 and after multiple areas were found through MRI testing that were missed by ultrasound and mammogram, and due to my BRCA1 status being found a bilateral mastectomy was the option for me. I have always said that the emotional baggage is far worse for me than any of the surgeries and treatments.

      October 13, 2010 at 00:40 | Report abuse |
  14. mtngrrll

    I had a total right mastectomy in 2008, one of seven surgeries for my breast cancer. It was undetectable except through a mammogram. The removal of the lymph nodes at an earlier surgery was worse than the mastectomy itself. My soon to be ex-surgeon ignored my repeated statements that I was allergic to surgical tape, and I was left with a gaping hole in my armpit and a massive infection. The mastectomy took four hours and in order for my insurance plan to save money, my surgery finished at 4pm and I was kicked out the door to go home by 6pm. My sweet husband took care of my drains and our boys since I could barely move for several weeks, but the mastectomy discomfort was nothing compared to the damage from the lymph node removal. It took over 5 months before I could use my right arm to drive again or carry anything or even reach out. Thankfully I switched surgeons for the mastectomy, and she did a beautiful job. Since I am 5'9" and only normally weigh 120 lbs., trying to do skin stretchers was very painful but worth it. If you weren't my husband, you would never know what I went through. With a nuclear value of 4.0 for my calcifications, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

    October 13, 2010 at 02:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. YK

    This journey is different for everyone. Everyone has different pain tolerance too. I had a double Mastectomy with lymph nodes removed and tissue expanders placed for implants last year. A week after the Double Mastectomy I had a re-exision to get clear margins. I developed a hematoma immediately after the first surgery so I was in quite a bit of discomfort the first week or so. The drains were also not comfy. I went through immediate reconstruction which was a bit of uncomfortable at times when the expanders were filled. Once the tissue expanders were replaced with implants though I had no discomfort. I experienced the same feelings that the blogger did about losing my breasts...they had to go so in order to beat this disease. At 32, after all my reconstruction surgeries and chemotherapy I feel sexier than ever. Sure I see the scars every day but no one else can tell..not even when I am in a bikini. And my husbands LOVES my "foobs" . 🙂

    October 13, 2010 at 07:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Christine Greene

    I to am a survivor I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer 9/19/07 which was also my mothers birthday whom I lost 4 years earlier from breast cancer at 59, I went with a radical lumpectomy and node removal. and 3 reconstructive surgeries, 6 months of cheom, 35 day of radiation and 1 year of herceptin, it has been 17 months since completion of all treatments and I am living my life to the fullest! yes of course theirs pain involved, but you must overcome the pain with the will and strength to "live" loosing someone you love from this horrible disease is a very agonizing slow painful death, I watched my wondeful Mom go through 3 years of absolute hell and pain with no quality of life , so I am so blessed and thankful for catching it early and having my wonderful family, friends and doctors for getting me through such a tough time, but I am back and loving life!

    October 13, 2010 at 10:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Carmen

    Yep, the doctors are quick to lop off body parts, and quick to give you radiation, and quick to scare you into having mammagrams every year, that actually cause breast cancer. They know what causes breast cancer, and they know how to stop it...however, there's no such thing as preventative medicine practice...that cure isn't manufactured buy the drug companies, so you'll never hear about it. The cure also means a WHOLE lot less money in the pockets of a WHOLE lot of doctors, so you will never see a cure. I for one will not fall for a this "pink-washing".

    October 13, 2010 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. J. W.

    Carmen, please tell us how you know that the cause and eradication of breast cancer is known. I'd like to read that information.

    October 13, 2010 at 12:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. dore

    A beautiful woman is still beautiful after breast cancer surgery- they key is that she is still beautiful- pink, rosy cheeks and alive. A beautiful woman with breast cancer and no surgery however, is likely dead.. rotting in a hole, and really not all that attractive.

    October 13, 2010 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. barbara

    I had a single masectomy in March and I will the second of my reconstruction surgeries next week where they will remove expanders and replace with an implant. I had a great experience and it was my choice to have the masectomy. And, If I had to do it over again, I would have done the same thing.

    October 13, 2010 at 14:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Roxy Fox

    it does scare women... just the fact of having a body part removed is mentally painful. She does share her pain honestly.. She’s not bragging. She had a muscle removed and that hurts as much to move as trying to bend a broken leg. People who had no pain it’s because they just had their breast removed. They are still mentally hurt and physically sore. They shouldn’t deny that. She might have a good family and great confidence because the majority of women I know DO have image issues and it’s okay. We DO live in a superficial world so you can’t run around like you live in the clouds. Reality hits in when you’re trying to buy a dress or try on a new bra… No one gets it. That’s why the families and friends of survivors should be careful and sensitive to their courageous friend or loved one. There is a psychological torture in our minds. Those were some means comments you guys left her… almost devilish. Some one’s story shouldn’t give you a reason to bash it. Everyone’s experience is different. That was her opinion and experience. What is she going to say” oh you’re right, maybe there wasn’t a bottom of the well’’. Yes there was.. It happened to her, not anyone else. You know what? When I woke up from MY surgery, I thought I was really dying and the doctor was trying to keep me alive. It’s silly but it happens. I’m a 24 year old breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed at 19 and battled it with surgeries and treatment till I was 23 and took my last pill of tomoxifen 3 months ago. Let’s respect everyone’s story as you would like respect of your own.

    October 13, 2010 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. debi

    Was Dr. Dirbas your surgeon? Isn't he wonderful?
    I, too, am at the Stanford Cancer Center. Have been there since 1996, having had a left-breast mastectomy. I stopped my reconstruction in 2000 -growing wearing of surgeries – and resumed in late 2008. With the support of Dr. Dirbas, my surgical oncologist, my plastic surgeon, and NOW my geneticist, I know that I am in great hands at Stanford Hospital. 🙂

    October 14, 2010 at 00:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Nercy Jafari M.D.

    this is good read, thanks

    October 14, 2010 at 13:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Beautiful

    Beautifully written. Would like a book.

    October 15, 2010 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Jaema

    I had the same operation and an excellent outcome 12 years ago. No chemo no radiation. My daughter was 2 at the time and we had only been married 3 years. I never really got over losing a part of my body. My husband was not supportive and acted like he was the victim.

    October 21, 2010 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Excellent quality articles are here. This is good site with useful info.
    http://novasurgicare.com/cosmetic-surgery-mclean/

    November 21, 2013 at 04:52 | Report abuse | Reply

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