During the initial shock of a breast cancer diagnosis, patients are quickly overwhelmed by all the decisions that need to be made. Staying alive and getting rid of the cancer are the top priorities. Thinking about what life will look like after cancer often doesn’t cross their minds.
I know this feeling all too well. I was told I had stage 3 breast cancer at age 39 in June 2017. As a nurse with 20 years’ experience, I relied on my medical background to help steer the course of my treatment. As a breast cancer patient, all I could focus on was getting the cancer out of my body. I started the first of 6 rounds of chemotherapy within 2 weeks of my diagnosis, which were quickly followed by a double mastectomy. I wanted everything gone.
I knew that the nerves that provided sensation to my chest would be removed with my breast tissue. Before my mastectomy, I asked my doctor a question many patients wouldn’t know to ask. “Am I ever going to feel again?” Many patients with breast cancer are not aware of postmastectomy sensation loss.1 As a nurse, I knew there was a possibility that postsurgical numbness could be permanent; that I might live the rest of my life with a significant loss of sensation in my chest.
What I did not know at the time was that restoration of lost sensation after a mastectomy is possible. Nerves cut during a mastectomy can be reconnected during breast reconstruction. I had no idea. But I was fortunate enough to have a surgeon who offered the procedure. My breast reconstruction included reconnecting the nerves cut during my mastectomy. As a result, I now have nearly all of the feeling back in my chest.
The issue of sensation loss and treatment is important, as oncology nursing continues to evolve with the advances made in breast cancer treatment and technology. In an ideal world, patients wouldn’t have to ask, “Will I feel again?” Patient education about the disease and its treatments would include the possibility of sensation loss as well as the potential to restore it.
Although I am very thankful to have made it to the other side of cancer, living the rest of my life with a numb chest would have had a significant impact on my quality of life.2 Until my sensation started to return, I felt nothing. It was like the numbness after a dental procedure, but over a much larger part of my body. I couldn’t feel hugs or my children resting their head on my chest. I felt incredibly disconnected from my body.
Experiencing sensation loss in my chest, but then having the opportunity to regain it is what helped me move on after cancer. I felt whole again — or as close to normal as one can feel after a battle with cancer.