The Weight of the World – My breast reduction journey

1610912_10204079650383910_3052899064755727197_nBy: Jana Greene

This is a post about breast reduction surgery. My experience is different from any another woman’s experience, in ways big and small.

I used to say I would never even consider plastic surgery, but that was before my back couldn’t take the pain anymore. In my 20’s and 30’s, when the subject of plastic surgery came up as it often does with women, I would smugly scoff and say, “I would never do it. Aging is beautiful and we shouldn’t hide our wrinkles.”

It was also before I had a single clue, as loathing plastic surgery is a young woman’s game. There’s nothing more obnoxious than a 25 year old woman pooh-poohing plastic surgery. Check back with me in 20 years, Toots, and we’ll see if you still feel that way, I want to tell my younger self.

If you are looking for titillating content (sorry, couldn’t resist….) this post is not for you. I’m writing it for all the women of the world carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders visa vie over-endowment. Like so many of the other topics I blog about, I want to share the message “you are never alone.” I think it’s important to know you are never alone in general.

I guess I should start by saying that I’ve never really understood the sexualization of breasts. Yes, I know they are things that boys don’t have and girls do have them,  which I suppose makes them pretty hubba-hubba to some. Not to me. I see them as pretty utilitarian. My mother had breastfed my significantly younger siblings, and I was used to being around it, and I read a lot of National Geographic in my childhood. That’s what boobs are for.

Which is to say, my own personal set did a really good job at what they were created for, feeding my children for a substantial chunk of the 1990’s. My daughters only ever had breast milk, never formula. It was simply right for me and my babies, I know that every mother and child combo is different. For me as a woman, it was a kind of magical time. It gave me new reverie for my body, which I’d always found fault in, even when it was young and taut and perfectly functioning.
Behold! I can make the milk!
And make the milk I did, feeding my daughters while setting this crazy-close bond with them.  My breasts are emotional to me because they did such a good job at helping me mother.

But this is not a blog post about breastfeeding, it’s about reduction surgery. Sometimes things you love cause you great pain, and this is definitely one of those occasions.

My breasts have  been big-to-enormous my entire adult life.  I was flat as a board until almost age 15, and prayed (prayed on my knees, I tell you!) to develop so that I could feel like the other girls who were already wearing bras. God has a sense of humor, of this I am certain. Within six months, I was a D cup. It was just crazy.

I had been invisible to boys prior to my sudden development, and I did not enjoy the new attention. Boys were rude about it, of course, and it made me very uncomfortable. But boys will be boys. I wish I could say that teenaged boys were the only people who were rude about my chest size, but they were not. Throughout my life, random strangers felt compelled to comment.

I’ve had other women on the beach approach me and ask, “Are they real?”

Innumerable people have asked me if they were real over the years. “Yes,” I would say, even if the person asking were a total stranger.

But here is what I always wanted to say:
Of course they are real. If I was going to get them surgically enhanced, do you think they would be hanging this freaking low? Honestly.

I learned to laugh at being the butt of jokes. I learned to laugh at being different, because if you want to survive intact on this planet, that is what you do. I could make the best self-effacing jokes about them. In the grand scope of things, big boobs are not tragic. But they are not necessarily worthy of celebration either. They were big; there was no getting around that fact – HH to J cups – before I had the surgery. Which is too much boob for anyone to carry around without pain.

I have had many people minimize the pain of living with large breasts with the snarky comment, “Oh what a terrible problem to have…” as if carrying around gargantuan weights all day every day is no big deal because it is breast tissue, and you know….hubba hubba breast tissue, right?
So, so wrong. It’s not sexy. It’s painful.

The entire process of considering reduction began the year I weaned my children, 1997. But at that point, my big breasts were more of an inconvenience. They made buying clothes difficult. They were embarrassing. So out of proportion. Years went on, and I gained and lost weight, yet nothing changed in the breast department. (I didn’t so much mind being heavy, as it made my chest size less obvious.)  It simply didn’t matter what I weighed, they were here to stay.

A couple of years later, I started having pretty substantial upper back pain. My only relief was being asleep, or being in water (and therefore, having gravity’s effects negated.) I swam a lot. I also drank quite heavily, but mostly to take my mind off emotional pain; not because I was large-chested, but because I am an alcoholic and that’s what alcoholics do. Sometimes, before I got sober, I would use the excuse of chronic pain to keep drinking.  In January of 2001, I got sober and into what remains a sweet and blessed recovery. I have been sober one day at a time, all glory to God ever since. Sobriety fixed a lot of issues, but did not take any literal weight off my shoulders. I learned to deal with the chronic pain as part of living “life on life’s terms.”

By 2006, I was talking to my doctors about the pain in my neck and shoulders. They rightly suspected the size of my chest was the core issue, and noted so in my charts. (I have since found out that documentation is very important when considering breast reduction surgery. Some insurance companies pay for it when it will relieve chronic pain, and some do not. But it is always a good idea to ask a physician to document the complaint if you are suffering.)

I wrapped up my thirties with my HH’s and a determination to overcome this particular problem at some point. I had constant strap marks on my shoulders no matter how long my bra had been off, from the digging in. I started having muscle spasms in my upper back between the shoulder blades, every single day. I developed big knots in my upper back, sometimes requiring painful treatments like cortisone injections. By body hurt, and it hurt a lot on the regular.  Sometimes I was a trooper and sometimes I was a big baby who JUST CANNOT TAKE THIS ANYMORE! DO YOU HEAR ME!? I CANNOT. I got depressed at times.  I cried a lot. I whined a lot.

There are powerful medicines to help one manage pain, but as a recovering alcoholic, I know better than to go that route. I know myself and my boundaries.

Still, surgery felt like a pipe dream – unattainable. I don’t know why. I just didn’t ever think I could go through with doing that radical thing to my body.

A few years ago, a disturbing new symptom arose. When I turn my neck to look right or left (especially right) I heard the sound of gravel. I could hear what sounded like footsteps on a gravel road…this horrible crinkly, crunchy sound. Coupled with the spasms and neck pain, I was more miserable.

It was time to put the wheels in motion to make that happen. I was ready.

The insurance company had a long, Honey-Do list of things to try before going the surgical route. I understand these things are successful for some women, and well worth trying, because if  there are things that work short of surgery, those are always preferred. They are not as invasive, not as risky. I saw Orthopedic doctors and had lots of x-rays. A lot of physical therapy, which I attended for many months, religiously doing my exercises.. Ultimately, it did not work for me because my issues all came down to one thing: My body could not successfully carry HH boobs around, and Lord knows it tried. It did a very admirable job in trying.
(And as aforementioned, losing weight did not affect the size. That’s the other key thing insurance companies suggest you do before resorting to surgery.)

As it turns out, the gravel sound was coming from my 5th and 6th cervical vertebra having very little cushion between them. The muscle spasms were my back’s way of trying to prevent more damage from being done. And the tremendous weight of my breasts pulling down on the whole configuration was gasoline on the fire.

The most emotional part of the whole thing was to actually make the appointment with a plastic surgeon, given the symbolism and attachment to my breasts and the role they had played so long ago in the nourishment of my children. Before surgery, my biggest concern is how the reduction would bode for me emotionally.

My biggest fear is that my post-surgical breasts would not feel like mine at all. The surgery had implications on every front for me – physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual. It is all connected.

Support is very helpful. More important than a supportive bra (uber-important) is the supportiveness of your circle. My friends were very supportive of my decision.
When I told one of my best friends about my decision to have the surgery, her reaction was priceless.
“I can’t wait to hug you,” she said. “And not feel like I’m being attacked by your boobs!” I immediately pictured a pair of hostile breasts out for world domination, Krakken-like.

“Oh you feel like they are attacking you, too?” I laughed. “My own boobs – out to get me! Even in my sleep, laying on my back….so….heavy….”

I’m especially grateful for the support of my husband, because my body belongs to him, too. I wanted to make sure he was okay with the surgery. His concern was this:  “I just don’t want you to be in pain.” His concern was not for the physical, as he loves the way his wife looks naturally. If it lessened my pain, he was good with it. Nobody else has had to put up with my whiny ass and complaining about the pain quite so much as he. And he has helped me every step along the way in recovery, which is a blessing beyond any words I can come up with. So grateful for him.

Even though breasts are not a particularly sexual thing to me, there was no denying that a big change was coming physically. And although the entire reason to seek the surgery was pain-management, I found myself excited to imagine what it would look like. I wondered what it would be like to wear normal blouses – even button-up ones! Buttons are the arch enemy of the large-breasted woman.

After a referral from a doctor I love and respect, I had a consultation with a Plastic Surgeon whom I came to have a really great rapport with. One thing that helped me decide that he was “The One” was that I had friends who had various kinds of work done by him, and adored both him and their results. Every surgeon is different, but I could tell from the get-go that he would be the man for the job. He listened, was very friendly and positive, gave thorough instructions and set realistic goals.

There are many different kinds of reduction surgery, many techniques. I had a ‘keyhole’ surgery, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like (Google it but keep in mind viewing the surgery is not for the faint-hearted!) I think the biggest fear I had with that is the nipples and underlying tissues being completely removed and re-homed higher up on the breast. Just thinking about it gave me shivers. My boobs would be participants in a Nipple Relocation Program, and I wasn’t sure I was okay with that. They had been innocent bystanders to all of this pain, just hanging out pointing South all these years. But lo, they would have to pick up and move.

It would be nearly a year between my consult and actual surgery, due to a number of factors, but on July 6th, all systems were ‘go.’

Sitting in the pre-op area with my husband, donning a lovely hospital gown and shower cap ensemble, I got fluttery about it. We have such a history, my boobs and I!  I reached up and held the vast expanse of territory that was my boobs  – those nurturing globes of too-much-of-a-good-thing – in my hands, and said goodbye.

But it wasn’t a sad occasion after all. My back throbbing and neck spasming even as I said goodbye to my cups  runnething over, I had peace. I kissed my husband and told him I loved him, and walked back to surgery with a very nice nurse who told me that she, too, had breast reduction surgery a few years ago, performed by the very same surgeon doing mine.

“You will be so happy,” she said, as I lay on the table and started to feel the effects as something squirrely was fed into my IV tube. “You will be so happy when you wake up.”

I woke up from surgery feeling like I had taken just the briefest nap. And then the pain. Oh lord, the pain!  It seared across my chest.

“It’s an eight, it’s an eight, it’s an eight!” I cried to my husband in the recovery room. An ‘eight’ on the pain scale from 1-10. That’s all I remember thinking or saying. My husband told a nurse right away, who added something to my IV to help with the pain. The agony waned away, and I never  returned to an ‘eight’ in all of my recovery.

Not surprisingly, there is pain involved in this surgery. Any time you have 500 or so stitches and about 30 inches of incisions (including relocated nipples) there will be pain in recovery. I know women who have had the procedure and never needed so much as a Tylenol. I am not that woman. The pain is not, however, unbearable or so severe that I regret doing this.

No, I have no regrets.

You see, I woke up so happy. The nurse was right. Even with the post-surgical pain, the awful neck and upper back pain was gone, instantaneously. What a difference a few pounds of breast tissue removed can make. I reached up groggily and felt around a bit. And smiled.

Mine was outpatient surgery. My surgery was at 7:30 in the morning, and I was home by 1 o’clock in the afternoon. It was incredible. I had a little station set up at home that included a recliner, blankets, computer and cord, books, etc. I cannot stress the importance of the recliner. It is hard to get comfortable sometimes, but the recliner helps.

For the first two days post-op, I didn’t want to do anything at all. I slept a lot.

On day two, I got to take off my bandages. My daughter was with me at the time (she is 23 and was my caregiver for a couple of days when my husband had to return to work.) We stood in front of the bathroom mirror as she slowly helped me out of my post-op bra and gauze, and we gaped in both shock and awe. Shocked by the bruising, a little bleeding, and general Frankenstein-ness that is the initial result of any type of reconstruction surgery. But awed by the absolute difference. I turned my head to the right to look at my daughter’s face and reaction, and then I cried. I turned my head to the right, and it was not excruciating! I could barely hear the gravel! Such a simple thing brought tears of joy to my face.

Looking back at the mirror, I stared for several minutes. Bruised, stitched, battered, and mine.

They were perfect to me. They were mine from the start. They just felt like mine – a smaller more manageable version of my previous back-breakers – but definitely mine. I formed an attachment right away, I guess you could say.

I am about 25 days post-op as I write this. I get tired easily, and I get this heavy aching in the late afternoons every day. It just makes me pace around the house and moan a lot, and curse on occasion. It is not resolved by anything but going to bed. But I’m still early in healing.

Sometimes things you love cause you pain, and my reduction surgery helped me to have less of it. At the expense of some breast tissue, yes. But a small price to pay for relief.

As a general rule, I try not to wax poetic about things I wish I’d done sooner in my life, but breast reduction surgery is one of those things. So cliché. I wish I’d done it years ago, but I know that when you are prayerful about things, God makes sure the timing is perfect. Something I’ve thought about doing for many years is done now. Onward and upward!

I am grateful to be healing really well. I’ve done every single thing the doctor said to do, including taking it easy. “Taking it easy” is one of those things that sounds fabulous and relaxing until you have to do it or else you’ll bust your stitches. It’s harder than it seems. I wear the bra I’m supposed to heal in 24/7. I take care in keeping the incisions clean and dry. I try to rest. I know others who do all the same things but encounter complications….everyone’s experience is so different.

As far as pain goes, I took the pain medication as instructed until it ran out (it didn’t take long, just a few days….you don’t get many, which is a good thing for me, long-term) and then I alternated Advil gelcaps with Tylenol. And ice packs wrapped a couple of times in a soft towel. There’s also this magnificent creation called a “Chillow” that you can buy online and hold to your healing chest, and it is wonderful. It isn’t icy, just chilly…kind of like the cool side of a pillow. I use scar gel, and use it liberally, and I think it is helping immensely. I am starting to be able to sleep in the bed again, not just the recliner, and not feel like I’m being attached by a Krakken when I lay on my back.

I know have lots of healing yet to do.

I don’t always recognize my own silhouette on reflective surfaces as I pass by them. It’s different. But it looks entirely natural, very proportionate.

I’m working on less fault-finding with my body in general, learning to love and appreciate it for what it is – a butterfly with some wear and tear on her wings who has only identified with the caterpillar and never got the memo that she could fly. Maybe it will be easier to fly without all of that weight on my shoulders. That’s a super corny analogy, but it’s the best way I can describe coming to terms with my body and face as I crest my middle ages. That’s a whole other blog post altogether, I think.

For me as a woman, this is a magical time. Learning to give reverie to my body. Wrinkles and all.

Behold, I can turn my head without much pain!

The weirdest thing about living post breast reduction is how un-weird it feels to have smaller breasts. It’s so radically different from all I’ve ever known that it is almost familiar.

Oh, so these are the boobs I was meant to have! 

They were supposed to stop growing at D cups, to my mind, and they never seemed to stop growing. But now they are exactly the breasts I am supposed to have and perhaps was supposed to have all along.

Yeah. They feel like the ones I was supposed to have all along.