December 3, 2012

Finding peace when you’re not feeling sexy

Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life every other Tuesday. Read past columns at

I was wearing a short black dress with white geometric figures that distract the eye from my uneven breast implants. Ruffled shirts, scarves, loose sweaters and bright contrasts also do the trick.

I was seated next to an ex-boyfriend I had not seen in a while. My heart was beating fast. We met when I was 19. And that skinny girl with pretty breasts and flawless skin was long gone. He looked almost the same. I put my head on his shoulder and he put his arm around mine.

We were at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach for a recent concert and I was worried. A recurring thought I have had for the past year was bothering me.

“I wonder if he [or she] noticed that one breast implant is higher than the other.”

Last year, three months after a stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, I had a bilateral mastectomy –– surgery to remove both breasts. I had immediate reconstruction, which means I walked out of the hospital with two small saline implants. Dr. John Cassel, who specializes in reconstructive plastic surgery, used a syringe to fill them with more saline water at his office in South Miami as I recovered from the surgery.

“I want them to be as big as they were before, if that is possible,” I said. We are aiming for a “C” cup.

The breast reconstruction is ongoing. The implants kept my skin stretched through radiation therapy. The radiation applied to the left side of my chest darkened and weakened the skin, and hardened the left implant. I completed that phase of treatment Jan. 26, and the skin needs a year or so to recover.

After the skin recovers, I will undergo surgery for the more permanent silicone implants. (Placing the silicone implants too soon could result in a visit to the emergency room if the skin ruptures).

After recovering from the silicone implant surgery, the next step is nipple reconstruction surgery. If all goes well, this would take place a year from now.

Two out of three doctors recommended that I have my nipples removed. I thought about it for a day, and let them go during the mastectomy. A Florida International University professor, who is a longtime breast cancer survivor, said her breasts before reconstruction surgery “looked like two knees.” I relate.

For now, the left implant feels like a soccer ball and the right one like a bouncing ball. There is a light lineal scar on both breasts. And instead of nipples, I have scars. Believe it or not, I’m getting used to them.

A single friend, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 33, has really pretty breast implants. In her pictures, you can see cleavage. She did not have radiation, so instead of the temporary saline water implants, she got silicone implants after her mastectomy and kept her nipples.

I recently told her in a text message that I was having body image issues.

“Not having nipples is awful. It really makes one feel less feminine and abnormal ––deformed and not sexy,” I said. “I have been able to feel pretty but not sexy.”

She agreed and texted, “I have pretty days but never sexy and I have nipples.”

Because the surgery prolonged our lives, we don’t have regrets.

The good news is that my doctors have not found any new tumors. I’m also taking Tamoxifen, a drug for patients whose tumors fed on estrogen, for the next four years.

The five-year use of the drug has been proven to reduce recurrence and breast cancer mortality for about a decade. At the 35th Annual San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS), being held in Texas, starting today until Saturday, doctors will discuss the toxicity and benefits involved in prescribing the drug for a longer time.

So far, the side effects of my treatment are not getting in the way of enjoying life.

While at the concert, a woman playing the violin transcended my fears. Then a few more violins joined in, and then a cello. The music filled the auditorium. I closed my eyes and felt at peace.

Those are the moments that make me love life so much.

“Are you OK?” my ex-boyfriend whispered in my ear.

“Yes, this is beautiful.”

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