Loss of sensation is a common side effect of a mastectomy (and breast augmentation). Sometimes it’s temporary, and some people are numb from collarbone to the top of the ribcage for years or forever.
I did not shy away from looking at myself immediately after the surgery. I didn’t want to be … scared of me. This is my body. I mean, it tried to kill me, but all relationships have problems, right? Right after I woke up after anesthesia, I looked when the doctors checked on the incision. I don’t shy away from mirrors (I am quite vain anyway), and I don’t hate the way I look, even when it’s not ideal. It helps that it’s temporary.
But touch, touch is something different. Right after the surgery, everything is numb. If it’s not numb, it hurts. I didn’t have the full numbness I feared, but everything was…. novicaned. Part of not wanting to touch myself was the incisions. And the drains, those GOD AWFUL DRAINS (they deserve a post of their own). But it’s more than that. Your body betrayed you, and now you don’t trust it. You can’t even FEEL it. Am I hurting myself? Between drugs and lack of sensation, you just don’t know.
Two weeks after surgery, I was off narcotics and finally decided to wash the whole area properly, figure out exactly what I could and could not feel. I didn’t have any numbness along the front, but my whole side, up through my armpit, and down my inner arm to my elbow was numb. It is terrifying and wretched, having to figure out and accept your new reality, your new body. I knew I’d look different, but I don’t think I was prepared for FEELING so different. Not emotionally (that I knew), but on my skin, IN my skin.
A few days after that most melancholy shower, I had THE WORST PAIN I had at any time through this treatment. I felt like I was being SPLIT OPEN, and kept checking to make sure I wasn’t bleeding or … exploding or something. Thanks to my emergency Percocet plus a truly lovely brunch, I made it through, and the day following, I realized that I had sensation back.My surgeon said that pain was the nerves waking back up, and they were much happier sleeping. I can feel my side and my arm, although there is still a small numb spot in my armpit.
Surgery is hard enough. A mastectomy is hard enough. Cancer can take so much of your identity, and some cancers, like breast cancer or ovarian cancer or testicular cancer, are all tied up in your sexuality and identity and self. Your treasonous body is you, and you have to deal with that. The disconnect from self, exacerbated by the numbness, that was a surprise. So I’ve started to recontextualize pain as a return of feeling, a return of normal. Surgery is pain, but so is recovery. Healing is pain. Life is pain, or so I’ve learned from the Princess Bride. And feeling is always better than numb.