“Are we there yet?” The question anyone making a long journey with a small child is sure to have heard. You don’t expect to hear it asked in many other situations but breast cancer is one where the thought occurs even if the words remain unspoken. Pre-diagnosis I heard many media stories about how we no longer need to be afraid of breast cancer, how treatable it’s become and how many more women survive these days. Bearing in mind none of the women in my family have survived I try to look on the bright side and hope these stories are all correct. I’d heard that treatments had moved on, surgery was less debilitating and with the help of pink ribbons the world was now full of courageous cancer warriors – previvors, survivors and thrivers.
Until I was faced with aggressive breast cancer, a type that brings a high propensity to metastasise, I had not heard that diagnosis, surgery and treatment may well take over a year. I had not heard that diagnosis itself requires multiple steps which can (and did) include many false starts, lots of potentially conflicting information and significant additional stress. Post diagnosis I had not heard that surgery and surgical revisions, follow-up treatments and regular check-ups can extend for a minimum of half a decade – and that’s if you happen to fall into the ‘best case’ scenario. Nor had I heard via any popular media sources that in the case of those diagnosed at Stage 4 (or the 30% of us who go on to develop mets in spite of treatment), the journey is never complete. Check-ups, treatments and various surgeries just keep going until we ourselves come to an end. “Are we there yet?” takes on a whole new meaning in this realm.
My own breast cancer journey has been tracking along for over three years now. We are still moving forward yet still unable to answer the “are we there yet?” question. Major surgery is complete and I am in remission as far as we know but only time will tell if that will remain the case. Meanwhile there are a number of minor things to tackle including surgical re-work to address unintended consequences arising since the original reconstructions. When these revisions happen depends on waiting lists, beds and Government spending reviews but in the meantime there are highly recommended ‘finishing touches’ designed to help me believe that life is as it should be. This involves the creation of an illusion of a more normal appearance, but in truth there is nothing normal about any of this.
It is at this point that the scars and tattoos become relevant. Post-surgery, chemo and Herceptin I am the owner of a Barbie-esque chest that is almost as unnatural, shiny and pink as Barbie herself. Were it not for the scars running across the front of mine (and the vampire bites – double drain scars that adorn either side of my rib cage) my torso might be that of a plastic toy. Fortunately the vampire bites are not obvious and there’s little to be done with them in any case. The same is not true for the front facing scars and on top of all this (no pun intended) is the small issue of absent areola/nipple complexes. You won’t be surprised to learn that this tends to give the game away.
At first I didn’t think the whole Barbie/nipple thing bothered me. I was glad to be alive and still am – glad and alive. I didn’t plan to show my chest to anyone other than the person I married so missing in action areolas and nipples felt like no big deal. But having lived with pink plastic mounds for three years I’ve come to realise the absence of those oh so common breast adornments and the obvious scars that took their place serve only to remind me of things I’d rather not dwell on. Additionally there’s the small issue of any activity involving communal changing rooms, taking one’s top off or the dreaded but inevitable accidental reveal. Being an outdoor type that’s easier to achieve than you might at first imagine.
So after much deliberation I took my consultant’s advice and engaged in the process of additional fakery – to help disguise the fact that both breasts are completely fake. A fake to hide a fake is pretty clever stuff but in real terms it consists of multi-pigmented tattoos designed to give the appearance of an areola/nipple complex. There is no need for more surgery to reconstruct fake nipples and as they’ll never be or behave like the originals I couldn’t see that they serve any purpose other than being there.
As with all things breast cancer the tattooing procedure is a multi-stage process and requires more than one treatment. Before commencing work the nurse tattooist gave me some anaesthetic cream. This has to go on an hour in advance in the hope it will numb the area. On reflection I should have realised it wouldn’t be terribly effective because the same stuff is used by my dentist and never works. I normally end up with multiple doses and have to wait much longer than normal before it kicks in. So the tattoo process was not pain free and although it was reasonably quick it had me wincing and silently chanting ‘I hope this is worth it.’ The nurse did offer to stop but when you’re a third the way through that doesn’t seem like a viable option!
At the end of the process there was some blood. This was followed by more bleeding and weeping afterwards. It’s fair to say that the area was quite sore for a few days and a little tight and swollen. Scabs formed then became itchy and began to fall off. I left them alone because picking would cause pigment loss and possibly lead to an infection. About a week out from the tattooing process the scabs were all gone and the resulting pigmentation is reasonable if patchy in places. This is why the procedure requires more than one attempt.
Looking closely at the scar tissue it seems the pigment struggled to take in the sharp edges of both scar lines. Incidentally this area was hyper-sensitive when the tattooing took place. Peering less closely and looking from a small distance the scars themselves are much less noticeable and hidden by something that passes as an areola/nipple complex. Although this is the first attempt it’s probably good enough to fool anyone who might catch a glimpse in a communal changing room – as long as they don’t stare!
The next tattooing episode will happen in about 6 weeks time when the skin is properly healed and the big question is… Is it worth it? On balance I think it is. After breast cancer nothing is ever the same so something approximating normal is about as good as it gets. I now know what to expect during the next round of inking and will slap the anaesthetic on well in advance. Once the soreness and scabbing subside I can look forward to having two very respectable forgeries in place of the torso of a badly treated Barbie doll.
I had to think about this long and hard because I am tired of hospital visits, surgeries, re-work, worry, stigma and prejudice. But my consult (who is a miracle worker as well as a thoroughly lovely lady) was right. Looking more normal is helping me feel more normal and that is the ultimate placebo effect. If you’ve had surgery and are thinking about areola/nipple complex tattoos the following articles may be useful. Nancy’s post gave me the inspiration to try this for myself and like Nancy I am happy with the result
- Nancy’s Point: The final step in the long and winding road of breast reconstruction
- Nipple/areola tattooing. Worth it?
- Channel 4 Embarrassing Bodies: Breast and nipple reconstruction