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I Rebuilt My Breasts After Cancer. Rebuilding My Life is Even Harder

Why breast reconstruction is only the beginning of my life post-cancer.

Jen Rozenbaum shares an intimate moment with her daughter as she rests and recovers after breast reconstruction surgery. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

re·con·struc·tion

ˌrēkənˈstrəkSH(ə)n/

The action or process of reconstructing or being reconstructed.

 A thing that has been rebuilt after being damaged or destroyed.

It’s been eight months since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy. The next step in this process is reconstruction. I look up the definition of reconstruction and I can’t help but chuckle to myself. A rebuilding of a thing that has been damaged or destroyed. Is it true? Am I that thing?

I liken cancer to a tornado. The similarities are many. A tornado touches down with little to no warning. It can level your home, your life, and your sense of security in the blink of an eye. 

Certainly, you can hide from a tornado. You can go underground and do what you have to in an effort to save yourself. In the same way of defense, you can treat cancer. You can have surgery and chemo and radiation and whatever else the experts recommend. In both scenarios, you can take every action possible in an effort to secure your safety. 

When the tornado passes, you emerge from the underground shelter and find your home in pieces. Some things are the same—you still have your friends and family. If you’re lucky, you have a ton of support from those who care. But when it comes down to it, all you want is to live in your house again. You want things to go back to normal and to sleep in your own bed and to feel safe. You want your uncomplicated life back. But it’s not there anymore. Everything has changed.

It’s the same with cancer. I see familiar pieces of my previous life, but they don’t always make sense anymore. I don’t feel safe anymore. It’s complicated.

Jen recovers from reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

When I scheduled my mastectomy, I thought that was going to be the hardest part. But I made it through. When I began my first chemo treatment, I thought that would be the hardest part. And again, I made it through. Don’t get me wrong, they were both challenging and scary. But when they were over, so, I thought, was the hard part.  I was wrong. 

The hardest part for me in this crazy journey to safety and simplicity has been the reconstruction. The reconstruction of my life, my body, my beliefs. After treatment ended, I was hit with the emotional shockwave of what my body had been through in the months prior.

One of the many gifts Jen received from family and friends during her breast cancer journey. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

I would have panicked moments. The thought, “Holy shit, did I cut off my breasts?” would often hit my mind like a ton of bricks. Every now and again someone would send me an article about how they are going to cure cancer and it would make me mad. Go figure, I would think, they are going to cure cancer after all I just went through. (Please note—I know this isn’t a logical thought and to be clear, I would be beyond exuberant for a cancer cure.) 
 
When chemo was over, there were days that I would feel moments of joy, followed by days where I would shut my phone off and cry in bed for hours. It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s also important for me to be honest about the process. It’s important for me to be honest because this was the reality. It might not be everyone’s reality, but it was, and some days still is, mine. It’s the part no one tells you about. 

It’s hard for me to admit the darkness because as a survivor, so often I’m told, “You should be happy you are alive,” and “You’re a warrior, an inspiration, you are strong!” I am all of those things. But let’s face it. I’ve been through hell, which sometimes makes doing and being those things more difficult than you can imagine.  

Cancer has taught me this invaluable lesson: There is a huge difference between BEING alive and FEELING alive. Being alive is great, but can feel empty and lonely. For the last eight months I have been consumed with my health. Joy has often been replaced with pain. Now that I am moving past the pain, finding what makes me feel alive again is part of my emotional reconstruction.

Jen is finding new ways to feel alive again, including a celebratory trip to Disney World with her family. | Photo credit: The Well / Photo courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

And of course, there is the physical reconstruction. People who have never experienced it have an interesting perspective of this part of the process. During a recent visit to my OB/GYN, I saw a doctor in the practice that I had never met before. She was asking me about my mastectomy and when I told her my reconstruction surgery was around the corner, she admitted to me she never understood why it upset women so much. After all, my breasts will surely look better than ever.

I have to admit, prior to this exchange I probably would have had that same thought. It’s not meant to be malicious—she was trying to make me feel better. And to make herself feel better. It’s human nature. What I have learned through my journey is that when someone appears normal, it makes people more comfortable. As long as I look normal, I must be OK.  As long as I look good, I don’t have to admit I am not. It’s almost like hiding in plain sight. 

I recently underwent surgery to exchange my tissue expanders for silicone implants.  It was the day I had been waiting for.  Reconstruction surgery represented a triumph. It was the finish line. New breasts signified new beginnings. It’s apropos that my surgery landed right before the start of spring—it was my own rebirth.

Reconstruction was a lot less painful and difficult than my mastectomy, both emotionally and physically. Let’s face it, waking up with new breasts is a lot more exciting than waking up with none.

Jen gets familiar with her new body. She still has drains in from her recent reconstructive surgery. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well
"Waking up with new breasts is a lot more exciting than waking up with none," Jen says of her most recent surgery. | Photo credit: Jackie Molloy/The Well

I am happy to report the surgery was a success, and I am very happy with the results. A week later, I went for a follow-up appointment with my plastic surgeon. Sitting next to me in the waiting room was a woman who was about to see the doctor for the first time. She was newly diagnosed and was having a double mastectomy the following week. She and her partner sat patiently, working on a list of questions they needed to have answered. I saw myself in her. Heck, I was her a short eight months ago. It feels like a lifetime.

We struck up a conversation and I helped answer so many of her questions—questions that the doctor may know the textbook answer to, but had no personal experience with. I gave her a list of what she would need to prepare; I explained the real timeline for recovery; I was as honest as I could be. 

She was scared and overwhelmed, just as I was when I was in her shoes. When the nurse called my name, I put my hand on the woman’s shoulder and told her she can do it. It will be OK. She’s stronger than she thinks. 

I was sending that message to myself as much as I was sending it to her. Talking to her made me remember how much I have been through. How strong I am and continue to be. I am so grateful for that interaction. That beautiful woman unknowingly offered me some much-needed perspective.

Even though I am now officially “reconstructed,” I know there is more construction to be done, in the heart, the soul, and the mind. But now, I can enjoy the process instead of dread it. Now, I focus on the rebuilding part instead of the damaged part. Rebuilding my life is a beautiful journey as I live beyond my fears, and the journey itself allows me to once again FEEL alive.

Jen is ready to feel alive again. | Photo credit: The Well / Photo courtesy of Jen Rozenbaum

Jen Rozenbaum lives in New York with her husband and two beautiful children. She is a cancer survivor, photographer and writer. 

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Published May 1st, 2018