Throughout my nine-year journey, I’ve learned that I wasn’t born with such qualities as strength, courage, perseverance and resilience. I was put on this path in order for these qualities to be learned and ultimately relied upon in order to get to the place I am at today. Most importantly, I was meant to share my story with others to educate, inform, encourage and inspire those dealing with breast or any other cancer.
My story began just about five months after my son was born on September 11, 2007. Nursing the greedy little guy on what seemed to be one breast most of the time (the left side was his favourite) posed to be too much for me. With two other children needing my attention, Christmas fast approaching, work still needing my expertise, recovering from my third cesarean, and a husband and house to look after, I was at my wit’s end. I decided to pack in nursing after four months. I figured my son had enough of the good stuff to give him the healthy start he needed.
In February of 2008, I was lathering up in the shower and came across an unusual lump in my right breast. I could literally grasp it under my skin and slightly move it from side to side. I didn’t think much of it but perhaps it is a clogged milk duct still trying to drain. I made an appointment with my family doctor who sent me for an ultrasound and mammogram. They both came back inconclusive, but perhaps a calcification of a milk duct from my nursing days. Something told me it was more, and I got a referral to see a reconstructive surgeon who specialized in patients with or who had cancer. So this doctor did her check-up and said let’s wait and see if it changes in the next six months. Six months later we just decided to remove the lump. I went back two weeks later to get the stitches removed and then I received the dreaded news. I had Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). It’s considered a “pre-cancer” of the breast’s milk ducts that can turn into cancer if not treated as such. She also found a spot of invasive breast cancer that was high grade and aggressively growing. I wanted it out immediately. My heart sank, I cried and the doctor was sad for me as she too didn’t expect these results. I mean, there’s no family history of breast cancer and I was a very healthy young woman. Why did this happen and how? An MRI showed more spots in the surrounding marginal area of where the lump was removed and the recommendations were to remove more tissue and go through radiation or do a nipple-sparing mastectomy and remove most of my breast tissue, then go on this mediation called Tamoxifen for five years which lowers the rate of cancer coming back. Of course, I chose the most radical route of the two as I didn’t want to ever deal with this again. I chose to remove both my breasts and do the reconstruction. I had so much longer to live, and my three babies to watch grow up. I didn’t want to worry about this horrible disease for the rest of my life.
Within the next year and a half, I had 10 surgeries to try to reconstruct my breast. I had many complications from excessive scar tissue build-up, multiple hematomas (a collection of blood outside the blood vessels causing blood to leak into surrounding tissue causing swelling and pain), excessive loss of blood, resulting in the need for two blood transfusions, and thinning out of my chest (pectoral) muscles making it hard to hold the implants, just to name a few. I persevered and made it through all of these surgeries with the help and support of all my family and friends. It was emotionally taxing on my family and me, but I learned that I was stronger than I thought and that God was on my side. After all, the reconstruction part was just cosmetic; albeit a very important part of my healing process. I knew that seeing myself in the mirror with my clothes off and still resembling a woman that way was half the battle with my recovery. I ignored those who at times made me feel like I was being vain by reconstructing my breasts and putting in implants.
I jumped headfirst into projects that helped me to heal and give back as I now felt and understood what some women were dealing with. I volunteered with the Look Good Feel Better chapter in Scarborough. It was comforting and rewarding as we helped other women dealing with cancer learn simple skincare, makeup application and wig care so that they can look good on the outside. I firmly believe that if you look good on the outside, you feel better on the inside. And this too was helping me. I also assisted my nine-year-old daughter, at her urging, to make pink beaded bracelets to sell and donate all the proceeds to the Breast Cancer Research of the Rouge Valley Health System. She donated $1,085.00.
Eventually, years had passed and my doctor was at odds with what to do next. After years of research, she decided to refer me to a doctor at St. Michael’s teaching hospital in Toronto who did a certain procedure using human cadaver tissue called Alloderm, and my own body fat to create more normal-looking/feeling breasts. The new surgical saga started in 2013. All was going well, and I was so looking forward to closing this chapter of my life. For months before my third and last surgery with this doctor (13th altogether), I had noticed my right nipple looking very irritated; as if I had been nursing. It was sore, cracked and bleeding. I brought it to her attention and sure enough, when she did a biopsy, it came back as Paget’s disease, which is a cancer of the nipple. This was the same breast that had the DCIS in 2008. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was now going to lose my nipple? So another surgery was soon booked, and my nipple and areola were removed. Now I was “nippleless” on one side but I still had my reconstructed breasts, which I have to say we’re looking pretty good. “Oh well,” I thought. It could be worse.
Complications ensued. I formed a hematoma again, and my previous incisions had started to burst open due to the pressure the implant caused. now had less skin to stretch out over the implant as a good amount was removed with the nipple and areola. My skin was ultimately thinned out and pressure ulcers were bursting open literally causing holes in my breast skin. I was not healing well and was in a lot of pain. I had emergency surgery to remove the implant, fix the open wounds, and put a smaller spacer until I healed. At that time the doctor decided to remove some more tissue to test as a precautionary measure. At the follow-up appointment, she sat down to talk about my pathology: the DCIS I had in 2008 had resurfaced in two more spots in my breast. The same right breast! I was devastated. All I could think of how did this come back? I thought that because I had chosen to go so radical and do the mastectomies, I would never have to worry about this dreaded disease again. I was second-guessing my choices and wondered if I had chosen to just take out more tissue and do radiation back in 2008 then maybe this would never have come back. Second-guessing wasn’t helping me though, and I had to regroup and take the next step toward getting rid of this cancer. I had to get through this. One thing I learned that all women should know is that a mastectomy never removes 100% of your breast tissue; therefore there is always a small chance of reoccurrence.
My 16th surgery was booked to remove the implant altogether and remove more of my breast to check for further cancer. I was on my way back to square one. Everything was removed, fat and implant. I was now left with no breast. The chances were slim that I’d ever get an implant back in. I was upset of course, but once again, how could I complain. Women lose their lives on a regular basis from this disease so I was grateful to even be here to have these multiple surgeries. Three weeks later the pathology report came back negative. There was no more DCIS or invasive cancer found and I would not need radiation. I was finally hearing good news after all the bad news I heard. I was thankful that everyone’s prayers had worked.
At the moment, I am learning to live with one breast. There may or may not be a chance to reconstruct. It’s hard to see myself in the mirror, but I have to learn to just ignore it. Having my breasts are no doubt a physical reflection of my womanhood, but it’s not a reflection of my core being as a woman. I’ve learned a lot more this time around. I’ve re-evaluated everything in my life, again, such as my relationships, my goals, my stressors, my spirituality and my health. I am still beautiful, inside and out. It’s been a physical and emotional journey, and I am still recovering, and all the while I’ve done it with the help of God, my family, friends, inner strength, courage, and…a little bit of lipstick.
Natalie Therese Wilson,