Breast expanders vs. radiation burns: 3rd surgery

by Wednesday, August 6th, 2014Breast Cancer24 comments

I had been told by so many people how easy the radiation portion of treatment would be. I have to say, yes — the immediate side effects are not too bad, the skin getting burned over time and a little fatigue. However, I didn’t know what the effects were going to be weeks after radiation. I had a terrible experience with my breast in the spot where they focused the boost. A week after radiation stopped, the area where my scar was started to open up and weep. I was told that this is normal, that of course the skin was burned and some people actually get blisters.
For those unfamiliar with breast expanders (a.k.a. tissue expanders), the video above shows how one works without any disturbing visuals.

Eventually, the war between the burns and the expander came to a crisis point. Exactly two weeks after my last radiation treatment, a big bubble was protruding out of my breast. This blister broke two days later, and wouldn’t stop draining fluids and thick goop. This was totally gross and very disturbing. The pain was out of this world — probably worse than when I had my double mastectomy. I ended up having to see my plastic surgeon because there was a hole in my breast, and they could see inside to the breast expander.

My plastic surgeon took one look and said that what he was going to have to do was to remove the expander completely, and clean (or “power wash”) everything out, and then close it back up with no placeholder on that side. He told me that because my plan is to use my tummy tissue for my final (DIEP flap) reconstruction, this is the best thing. We can use some tissue from the other breast, along with my stomach, to form the two breasts.

I had my surgery on Tuesday the 29th of July. That day also happened to be our wedding anniversary (23 years). I guess I have one more thing to celebrate on that day — the removal of my ugly nasty expander. Lol … so now neither of the two expanders that were situated during my double mastectomy on March 10th has held up. (My left expander was replaced on April 4th due to a staph infection.)

Waterford Hot Air Balloon Festival, Waterford, Wisconsin
We still didn’t let things hold us back from trying to have a normal summer. Karen and Kevin took us to Ravinia Festival to see Willie Nelson, Allison Krause, and Jason Isbell. We took a tour of the SC Johnson headquarters here in Racine, went with the girls (Nadine and Zoey) to the Waterford Hot Air Balloon Festival, and Mark and I finally got to go for a nice long bike ride.

I do feel so much better since having that expander removed, and when I saw Dr. Hijjawi this past Monday, I couldn’t stop hugging him. The expanders never really felt that great from the start. I also had the added bonus of having yet another drain installed during surgery because there was so much fluid. Luckily, the doctor was able to remove my drain when I saw him on Monday. I now have to keep my breast(s) wrapped with an ACE bandage for the next week, and I will get my stitches out the following week.

I would never have dreamt of anything like this happening to me. I guess just because radiation is easy for some folks, that doesn’t mean it’s a given. What this proves to me is that cancer — and its treatments — are different for everyone. I could say I was very fortunate with my experience with chemo, but I am not going to say that it was a piece of cake either. I just know some people had it way worse than me. Just when you think it’s over — like, “Yay, I am done with treatments! It’s all good from here,” things can still pop up.

This past Friday we went to our first Relay For Life event in Kenosha at UW-Parkside. The breast cancer support group (Circle of Hope) that I belong to meets up every year to walk the track together. One thing that I thought about while walking with all of the other survivors was that each one of these people has a story to tell. To see all of them there in purple shirts with their families and caregivers, it was really special.

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