• Rachel Vercoe

Bye bye boobies

WHEN my surgeon came to visit me as I woke from the anaesthetic, I had one thing to say as I looked down at my chest.

“I still got tits!”.

During a follow up appointment a week after surgery, this is the story my surgeon told me with a grin on her face.

“You said it really loud and you could hear everyone in the ward having a giggle,” she said with a laugh.

I have no recollection of this but if you know me, it’s definitely something I would say. I’m a classy lady, even when under sedation.

Surgery has been hanging over my head since I was diagnosed in January. I always knew no matter what, something would be done to my body and as the date drew closer, I changed my mind multiple times.

My two options were a lumpectomy with radiation which was advised by the surgeons, or a double mastectomy, requested by me.

I went into my first surgeon meeting with the double in mind but was persuaded by multiple breast care nurses and surgeons to go with the lumpectomy. So I agreed.

There were a lot of perks with this option, I’d be able to keep my breasts apart from the cancer region, one day I’d be able to breast feed, I’d still have feeling in my breasts and they’d even give me a slight lift.

Paperwork was filled out and a date was made, September 10 here in Coffs Harbour. I’d made a decision and was feeling relieved but still not 100% confident in it.

About a month later I had an appointment with the radiation specialist here in Coffs which made me do a 180.

He listed side effects which included bone damage, nerve damage, heart damage, lung damage and the possibility of the radiation itself causing cancer which often comes back incurable. He also said there is literally no research on side effects after 20 years and I plan to live a lot more than 20 years.

A list of side effects turning me off getting radiation in my 20s if I could avoid it.

“You’re 26, we don’t know why you have it now, so what’s to say it won’t come back,” he said.

When I asked for his opinion he said if he were me, he’d go for the double.

Hearing someone voice their opinion so strongly was exactly what I needed. Everyone was giving me options but I didn’t want to choose. I believe things happen as they should and you’re often guided down the path you’re suppose to be on so hearing this made me reassess my decision.

Shortly after I had another appointment with my surgeon and it was out with the lumpectomy and in with the double mastectomy. It might seem drastic, or not at all to you yet but as soon as I made the decision I felt confident in it.

I would be having the double mastectomy with a small number of lymph nodes removed to test if the cancer had spread followed by immediate implant reconstruction.

As September 19 rolled around I had a beautiful farewell from my work colleagues, memorable rides with Willow including one for breast cancer organised by amazing friends and packed my bags to head to Sydney. I thought my head would be spinning the week before surgery or I’d question my choice but somehow I was calm and confident.

A fun weekend poker ride with over 50 riders all raising funds towards breast cancer research. I have some wonderful people in my life!

Mum and dad drove me down to Sydney two days prior to surgery.

The day before I had one last appointment with the surgeons at Westmead Hospital and it was decided I would have expanders placed in rather than implants so we could get my breasts looking just right by the time my second surgery came around. If I was going through all this anyway, I might as well get what I’ll be happy with right.

A few days before surgery we celebrated Natalie's 28th birthday and my 'boob voyage' with some of our favourite people!

Four needles were injected into my right breasts and a number of scans were taken to track where the stuff injected travelled to find out which were the first few lymph nodes.

Shortly after I had another appointment to have four injections into my breast with the cancer to track which lymph nodes cancer cells could potentially have spread to.

Then suddenly, it was Thursday, September 19. Go time.

It was strange knowing the breasts I’ve had my entire life were now on limited time.

I wasn’t too nervous as we walked into the hospital at 7.30am accompanied by mum and dad.

“Rachel Vercoe,” the nurse called into the waiting room at Westmead hospital.

This was is, it was crunch time. Goodbye to my breasts of 25 years. I’d accepted they were no longer good for my body and this was the best decision I could make.

As I laid in the anaesthesia room I thought how odd it would be if I just got up, said no I don’t want this anymore and left while the whole team of people were in the room just behind me prepping for surgery.

It was just a fleeting thought of course as I was brought back to reality by the sting of a needle going into my hand. Then the wriggling of said needle as they missed the vein and had to try again.

“I’m going to give you something for the pain,” a man said to me.

I felt the liquid pass though the needle into my arm and spread throughout my body as they started wheeling me through the doors to the surgery room.

“I’m going to be sick,” I said immediately and a spew bag was handed to me. I started spinning, didn’t see any faces and that was it. I was out.

Surgery went well. I slept most of the next 24 hours, struggling to keep my eyes open when I did wake up for the nurse to take my observations (heart rate, pulse and temperature).

Originally told I’d be spending one night in hospital, the day after surgery the nurses said they wanted me to stay another night. Mum and dad were lucky enough to be able to stay in the emergency room on my ward.

A nurse had to help me walk to the bathroom for the first 24 hours, something I didn’t expect. I was sick, nauseous and sore with two drains hanging out either side of my ribs to keep the wound clean and help it dry faster.

Upon release, I was tender but ok. My expanders were bumpy, filled with air and my breasts almost black with bruising from them ‘scooping’ out all my breast tissue. Mum, dad, Nat who flew down after surgery and I stayed five nights in Sydney while I recovered and waited for my next appointment.

Every day we had to empty my drains and measure how much fluid was in them. If it was under 30ml for two days then the drains could come out. I couldn't move my arms above shoulder height and most

movements were painful.

The majority of both breasts are completely numb. If I was somehow accidentally sliced across the breast, I wouldn’t even noticed. The back of my right arm where the lymph nodes were removed is also numb and quite painful at times. This is from them aggravating and stretching the nerves when removing the nodes. Feeling can sometimes come back, or not.

Five days after being released from hospital we were back with good news. Pathology showed there was only 1mm of my 16mm tumour left and no traces found in my lymph nodes. Chemo had paid off. I have to admit, I was nervous waiting for those results.

They redressed my wounds and took out one of my drains. A giant needle with a syringe attached was them stabbed into both my breasts, the air sucked out of the expanders and replaced with saline. As you could probably imagine, this was a very strange feeling. One of the perks I suppose is I could only feel one of the needles going in.

My scars and drainage sites one week post op. Sorry for the graphic images.

As soon as I sat up on the hospital bed after the saline filling, I felt excruciating pain. The side where the drain was left in was where the pain was coming from. 50ml was taken out of the expander in attempts to ease the pain but it didn’t help. After popping two endone (pain killers), I was sent home spinning, nauseous and with slightly less pain.

The next two days were awful. The pain was back making it hard to do anything. Once I was lying down, I didn’t want to get back up because I dreaded the pain.

The yellow is how much of the drain was wrapped around behind my expander. I cried with relief once it was taken out and I wasn't in pain anymore.

Two days after the saline fill, Natalie and I flew back home. With the pain still so intense, the next day mum took me into ED to hopefully remove the second drain. I wished this was the cause of the pain, I was so scared they’d remove it and I’d still feel it.

Thankfully with an uncomfortable tug, about 20cm of drain came out and I felt instant relief. I could move again. From that day on, I haven’t had any pain killers.

I’m comfortable now, still bruised but when it comes to pain, I always know that I’ve had worse.

I’ve had another fill of the expanders here in Coffs and will adjust to my new ‘tits’ before exchanging them for permanent implants. What a relief that surgery will be. It'll be another goal smashed out during this cancer shit show.

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