The reconstruction process took more than four months. Photograph by Brandon Bray
When it was Teal’s turn to be the patient, Turney lifted the coffeepot for her and pulled dishes from high cabinets. But it was mostly naps Teal needed. She didn’t want help getting her shirt over her head or getting into the shower. She wanted to do things herself, the same way her mom had. Back in 2010, Teal couldn’t believe it when she caught her mother digging in the garden ten days after her mastectomies.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Teal asked.
“I can’t stand looking at your weeds anymore,” she said.
Now Teal understood. She didn’t want to feel helpless. She told herself she’d use the time off from work to edit a research paper she’d written. She e-mailed her plastic surgeon to see when she’d be able to jog again.
But she was more exhausted than she expected. She’d heard patients talk about how tired they were for the first few weeks, and now she was feeling it. She’d take a small dose of Valium at night to help with the muscles spasms, fall asleep by 10, get up at 7:30, and still not have any energy. She was usually a stomach sleeper but didn’t want to risk hurting her healing nipples, so she tried to sleep on her back. Every time she rolled onto her side, she woke herself up.
There’s no way I’ll be running in a month, she thought. How will I be ready to go back to work in four weeks?
Her chest was numb and her body so tight that she felt as if she had on a girdle. Patients had complained to her about the tightness, a result of the tissue expanders tucked behind the muscle.
They’re not kidding, Teal thought.
Her kids had to hug her more gently than usual. Ellie would ask if her mom’s “boo-boos” were okay. Nick was fascinated by the tubes coming out from under his mother’s shirt. “Can I see the drains?” he’d ask.
Teal had always told patients that getting the surgical drains out was no big deal. When her mother drove her to GW to get hers out, Teal was standing by the elevator when she said, “I really hope this doesn’t hurt.”
At her first physical-therapy session, Teal is flat on her back. “Breathe,” her therapist Bretta Fabian tells her. “Breathe.”
Gentle massage on connective tissue can make some patients lightheaded. Teal has always gotten nauseated easily, another reason she had to get out of general surgery. So much of general surgery now is laparoscopic, and Teal would get motion sickness from using the scopes while looking at a television screen.
Teal sends patients to Bretta Fabian for physical therapy after breast surgery to work on range of motion and releasing scar tissue. The sessions are especially helpful for patients who have had axillary lymph-node dissections in the armpit, which Teal’s mother had. “Push this hand towards the window behind you,” Bretta tells her.
Teal says, “Are you sure?” Bretta already used relaxation techniques on her shoulders, which made the muscles hurt, and reaching for the window seems impossible. “I feel so bad for patients who don’t have good arm mobility. My mobility is pretty good,” Teal says just before letting out a small scream.
Teal worried before surgery that once she had a mastectomy, she’d be more inclined to recommend the procedure to patients. She didn’t want that to happen—she knew what she’d done wasn’t right for everyone. Her colleague Robert Siegel wasn’t concerned—Christy Teal was too good to let a personal choice change the way she practiced medicine—but Teal was afraid she’d come across as biased, even by accident.
By week three, she knew that wouldn’t be happening: Physically, the surgery was a big deal. From a surgeon’s standpoint, a double mastectomy was an operation like any other. From a patient’s perspective, it was harder than she’d ever imagined.
At the six-week mark, Teal started feeling like herself again. She went on short runs and took her kids on bike rides. The tightness in her arms felt better, and she stopped noticing every little ache. A patient who’d had prophylactic surgery told Teal she could no longer do push-ups.
Good, Teal thought. I hate push-ups.
She was so focused in the operating room that she forgot she’d had surgery. She’d put on scrubs, turn on classic rock—or Norah Jones if it was an especially difficult surgery—and the pain went away.
She hadn’t planned on telling all her patients what she’d done, only those she knew were having a similar surgery, but some started asking how her vacation was.
“Good for you,” one woman said when she found out. She’d had breast cancer that didn’t show up on a mammogram.
A few patients told Teal she was brave for having surgery. She kept thinking about her patients—and about Turney—who didn’t get to choose when they went to the hospital and didn’t get to go back to work a month later. Those were the people who inspired her: the patients fighting breast cancer.
Some of Teal’s patients came out of surgery wondering what the pathology was going to show, how quickly their cancer was progressing, how much time they had left with their children. She came out feeling as if she was never going to get breast cancer. She didn’t feel brave; she felt lucky.
Next: Implants will take some getting used to