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After my double mastectomy last April, I remember reading an online article about how women are now forced to live with prosthetic body parts because of breast cancer. I thought to myself, “Wow, that sounds horrible. I guess I’m really lucky that I didn’t need to go through that too.” I even felt a little shame about it, “I got off pretty easy.” I had an image of these women in my mind: they are suffering, cancer victims.
Flash forward 3 months…I had just finished radiation and was planning a month-long celebration vacation. This was the first time I was flying post-surgery so I asked my plastic surgeon if there was anything I needed to know about traveling with tissue expander boobs ~ ummmm….do they set off the security alarms? Can they blow up at a certain altitude?
He said there’s nothing to worry about and his office could give me a letter explaining that I’m in breast cancer treatment. As I read through the letter in the waiting room of his office, my heart skipped a beat:
“Bethany is undergoing breast reconstruction and currently has prosthetic devices in her chest.”
Wait a minute. Say what? Prosthetic devices?
Pointing to my tattas, I asked the assistant at the front desk, “Are these prosthetic devices?”
“Yes,” she responded.
I burst out laughing. There I was imagining these poor victimized women with their prosthetic body parts and guess what? I’m one of them!
But yet, I’m not a victim ~ it’s not so bad having temporary anti-gravity boobies (which by the way, don’t blow up on airplanes). Are they weird as hell? Yes. And with clothes on, they look like boobs with an extra perk.
So…What are Tissue Expanders?
Tissue expanders are temporary implants that replace women’s breast tissue after a double mastectomy is performed (often, and in my case – it’s done in the same surgery). The outer layer is much harder than a regular implant and there is a small round area at the top of the expander for filling. They serve 4 main purposes:
- It emotionally supports a woman as she gets to wake up from surgery with some sort of breasts.
- They stretch the skin to prepare it for the final implants/breast reconstruction surgery.
- They hold the skin in place as it goes through radiation, which can shrink/tighten the skin.
- So the woman can be overly excited to receive her final implants because gosh darn…they’re gonna be better than these!
I also think tissue expanders could use a new name. Please choose from the following:
Boobs of Steel
Bionic Super Hero Breasts
Boobie Fill Tuesdays ~ the Expanding Process
Starting one week after surgery, I visited the plastic surgeon for weekly boob fills on Tuesdays. This is another way of saying that I got to see my boobs GROW a half or full size every week!!! He places a syringe full of saline in the top of the expander (the silver part). I don’t feel any pain ~ just a little pressure ~ and then sure enough ~ bigger boobs! Yes, I did take a video (how was I his 1st patient to do that???) and no, I’m not sharing it here.
I really enjoyed experimenting with different boob sizes. The expanding process happens until you reach your desired size, which for me is a small C. Anything larger than that would look a little too porn star on my small frame. He then blows up the “used to have cancer” side to be a size larger because it will be going through radiation which shrinks the skin.
So I spent the summer of 2016 with a leftie super boob!
The Hardest Part for Me…
I had heard from most women that tissue expanders weren’t painful ~ they were weird and uncomfortable at times ~ but not painful. So I was surprised to experience some pretty intense holy shit pain during the expanding process. Like I mentioned before, the fills were not painful. It was the time between fills. Because my tissue expanders are placed underneath my pec muscles, my pecs received an intense stretch when I got a boob fill. This then put extra pressure on my rib cage and surrounding shoulder girdle muscles. During this time, I also had a rare complication called “cording” which made it difficult to fully move and stretch my left arm. The fact that I’m a tiny person may have made it more difficult too. What supported me the most is physical therapy, yoga stretching, breathing, and yes – pain medication. Once again, I was confronted with my thoughts about medicine and you know what? It helped me immensely.
Life with Tissue Expanders
After the filling process was complete, the pain disappeared. The expanders did a great job of holding the skin in place during radiation. Now I am in “the waiting game” for my final surgery which is scheduled for May 4th. My plastic surgeon tends to wait longer than usual for the final reconstruction ~ 8-12 months after radiation. Since the skin can shrink during and even months after radiation, the longer time frame gives my skin plenty of time to fully heal, which will lead to a better aesthetic outcome and a less likely chance of complications, such as rippling and capsular contracture. I figure that I’ll have these boobs the rest of my life, so what’s a few extra months?
During the waiting game, I am still living a full life. I don’t really notice them much until I look in the mirror for my nightly ritual of massaging oils & lotions onto the skin to help the healing process.
Do I regret choosing this surgery?
To be honest, I have had moments where I have questioned my surgery decision. There has been a natural grieving process for my breasts ~ they have permanently changed (and they were pretty fabulous before!). I’ve had to be gentle with myself through many tears. Sometimes I feel insecure and not “natural” or as “feminine” as I used to be ~ more on this in a separate blog post. My mind has told me “A lumpectomy would have been easier. I made the wrong decision. I won’t like my final breasts.” Yet, is that true for me?
Actually, it’s not true. A lumpectomy + radiation would have made my left breast much smaller, so I would have needed to do breast augmentation on the right side to match (this involves more scarring as my right nipple would be removed and moved up). I am also reminded that my natural breast tissue was incredibly dense and lumpy ~ it was difficult to decipher the cancer lumps vs. natural lumps. I don’t know if I’d ever have cancer again, but I was guaranteed to have lumps again which means I’d need to go through a lifetime of “find the lump/mammo/ultrasound/biopsy/wait for results.” There are many ways to spend my time and if I have the option, less time in a doctors office works for me.
So…Do I regret it?
NO. I’m happy and grateful for this path. It’s the right choice for me. Without the stress, I’m free to be completely entertained by my boobs of steel. I show them off quite frequently. In fact, I recently spent a day at the Ten Thousand Waves Spa in Santa Fe and soaked nude in the women’s natural spring hot tub. I felt free, confident, and at peace. The other 2 women in the tub left 2 minutes after I arrived, but hey ~ no need to build a stressful story around that. I had the place to myself for 2 hours!
When a woman asks me, “what do they feel like?” I usually immediately grab her hand and place it on my breast or I’ll offer to show her what they look like in the bathroom.
When someone hugs me, they often ask, “oh – am I hurting you?” Dude – I’m the one with the hard-ass, indestructible bowling ball boobs that dig into your chest when we hug…”Am I hurting you?”
PS ~ they can NOT be used as massage tools. I tried with my husband and he wasn’t into it. However, they CAN be used to hold a plate of food while watching Netflix.
They keep me in my yoga practice. Daily stretching, movement, & some strengthening is choice-less for me.
I am also free to LOVE the anti-gravity bonus…you see, I didn’t realize just how much my natural boobs yanked on my shoulders & neck until I had weightless breasts. There are tiny, strappy, tank tops and bras that I can now wear and I LOVE it! Most of the time, I don’t even need a bra (except to cover my nipples in some shirts).
They don’t move. At all. So rebounding on my trampoline doesn’t hurt anymore. I don’t need to wear 2 sports bras while running (ok, I actually don’t run…but if I did, major support was needed!). So I created this facebook video to showcase this talent…
Final Surgery ~ May 4th!
I am beyond stoked for my final surgery, which is coming up in less than ONE month! Time has actually flown by and I am so okay with that. I have had fun designing my final breasts with my husband ~ we googled boob images online and showed my plastic surgeon. PS – googling boobs can bring up some pretty disturbing images…
The final ones will be much softer, closer together, and more natural looking. I will actually be able to have cleavage again! I’ve longed for the day I can look down and see a butt crack on my chest again. I plan to wear a lot of slutty clothes after May ~ tube tops, backless shirts, bikinis…bring it!
I choose to focus on the bright side of this process, the cancer bonuses and what I’m learning about myself. How I’m becoming more loving, accepting, and patient with my body and mind. How I can find humor in anything. This isn’t painting an airy fairy image over everything ~ it’s actually reality. And when I’m feeling down, The Work of Byron Katie brings me back. It’s a kind universe.
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Related blog posts…
Mental Medicine ~ The Work of Byron Katie
Gratitude, Elephants, & Going Potty ~ My Experience of Breast Surgery
When Complications become Blessings
How I Found Peace during “The Waiting Game”
26 thoughts on “Life with Tissue Expander Boobs”
I have to admit that I’m a little jealous. My boobs don’t look the same anymore. They are looking down. I would love to have them perky and smaller so I could wear small summer tops again. You amaze me, you are the most positive person and even when you get down you know how to help yourself. If you haven’t taught other people a lot during your treatment, it’s their fault not yours. I’ve learned a ton. Best of luck in May for the perfect Boobies and may you just love them as I Love you.
Hi Vicki! Yes, chemo completely deflated my boobs so I got a glimpse of my future! And I know they won’t be perfectly symmetrical and with radiation, one side will likely always be higher. But wearing a bra will be optional and that’s exciting! Always trying to find the perks 😉
Thank you for your continued support!
I just came across your blog article today and it resonated with me. Had a bit of a meltdown earlier as I am 1 day shy of being 3 weeks out from my double mastectomy. My final staging in 1A but will require chemotherapy (4 times every 3 weeks). I’ll begin end of month/first week in July.
I am petite with an athletic build. Before everything I weighed btwn 117-120 and 5’4”. I’ve lost about 7 pounds. I’m guessing stress and muscle loss…
I have expanders in place and they are so uncomfortable- I ache under my breast by suture, especially my right side. I feel a poking in my ribs, cleavage area, and in general around the expanders. There’s some sore/redness so my plastic surgeon has me on Cefadroxil antibiotics for infection prevention. I also had some fluid build up and had them drained a day ago.
Has anyone had a similar experience and also feel itchy? Any words and insight would be greatly appreciated. I’m always tired as well.
Thank you so much for reaching out! You are definitely not alone in this experience – especially those meltdowns – we all have them! As for the pain you’re experiencing, I would check with the plastic and breast surgeons to ensure it’s not something out of the ordinary (I always do that just in case). If all is healing in the right direction, see if they can refer you to a physical therapist. I worked with one because I developed a complication called “cording” (there’s another blog post on that) and I can’t even explain how helpful the PT was for me! It made me think…”why aren’t ALL doctors recommending PT right away no matter what?” It will help with energy too. The expanding process with the tissue expanders was painful for me…I had to go back on pain meds for a bit. Eventually, my body adapted and I started not to notice them much. And…the finals will be like a whole new world! I’m 5 years now with my new Foobs and they’re quirky but look pretty amazing. Check out my instagram @mygurucancer to see some photos. I hope this helps! Reach out anytime xoxo
What a delightful post. It reaches me as authentic and light-hearted. What an image in my mind of you and T custom designing boobs!
Thank you! It’s been pretty entertaining 🙂
Bethany YOU ARE AN AMAZING WOMAN!! I went to High School with your Hubby and have followed your story from the beginning and just had to tell you how inspirational, loving, strong and giving you are! Your story is so raw and I just thank you for letting us in!
With Love, Melanie Gibson (Pipkins)
Sent from my iPhone
Hi Melanie – how fun! Travis says Hi 🙂 Thank you so much for your kind words ~ they inspire me to keep sharing. xoxo
Thank you! I just started this process. Had my 2nd fill yesterday and this is just what I needed to see.
Hi Lisa! How’s it going now? xoxo
Hi, also had preventative surgery, double mastectomy with reconstruction. I experiencing the same thing you had with the tissue expanders. They are solid as a rock. Also I don’t have cleavage, my boobs aren’t close together, I had really big cleavage before, big chested lady here, well I used to have lol, not any more. Have my next appointment next month. So I can’t ask him now haha, so from what I read it’s normal having hard tits and standing far apart from each other, so I am not able wearing deep cut dresses yet. Guess I need patience, it’s only been 2 months post op. I enjoy reading your blog, very recognizable. Started blogging too, I find help in reading yours! I am already happy with my decision! Now to accept my new boobs, they are cute and perky though
Hey girly! Thx so much for reaching out! Do you have expanders now or the final ladies? I definitely dealt with the Grand Canyon gap between them too (totally normal) and I found that wearing tube top bras were super helpful. So I have my final boobies now and they are definitely softer and closer together! Not the same cleavage I use to have but nobody would have a clue they aren’t real. They were pretty lopsided at first (due to radiation) and over time they settled, dropped, and evened out more – I did a lot of pec stretching and daily massage. Still rocking that anti-gravity perk! Accepting land of new boobs was a process – it can take time, patience, and many tears, so please be lovey on yourself. I am very happy with my decision too!
What’s your blog? Would love to read it. Writing has helped me SO MUCH in this process and I’m currently transforming this blog into a book!
Thanks for your post. I’m wondering how soon you were able to do yoga, and to what degree. I know it will be a few weeks before I’m cleared to do anything like that since I just had my surgery 10 days ago, but I’m having a hard time comprehending positions like plank, Cobra, or even downward-facing dog or forward folds with these brick like tissue expanders. Any specific details you can provide on the type of yoga stretches/poses you were able to do and when would be greatly appreciated. In case you can’t tell, I’m anxious to get back to it but want to be safe.
Hi Sue! Congrats on being 10 days out! Yes, it will take time but you will be able to do all of your fun yoga poses again…eventually 🙂 Doctors told me to wait 6-8 weeks before trying anything strenuous and in the meantime, I took walks and stretched the lower half of my body. When you get the thumbs up to start gentle arm stretching/exercise (around 2 weeks I think?), doorways will be your new best friend. Face towards one and keeping your arms straight, extend them to the sides and gently lean forward to stretch your pec muscles/brick boobs. Over time, you’ll graduate to moving your arms higher and higher until they are over your head. I loved stretching in the shower too, the steam kept things looser. One arm at a time, you can crawl your fingers up the wall and lean towards the wall. I did this both facing the wall and facing my side to the wall. Lots of massage with light oils (like coconut oil) helped to stretch the skin and loosen those bowling balls (a little bit). Start on the outer breast and make small circles moving towards the nipple (if you still have them!). It helps with circulation too.
I ended up with a rare complication called “cording” which led me to physical therapy…which turned out to be AWESOME! If it’s covered by your insurance, I highly recommend it as she pushed me harder than what I thought was possible. I talk about it in this blog post: https://bethanywebb.com/2016/07/20/when-complications-become-blessings/
I had my implant exchange surgery 1.5 years ago and new boobs are SO much softer, more natural-looking, and are good at yoga. I can sleep on my stomach again too. It’s nice to know those bricks won’t last forever! Let me know if you have any other Q’s! Sending lots of love xoxoxo
Thanks so much! It’s wonderful to have some advice to navigate this new territory.
Also read your other post and hope I don’t develop any complications. My surgery was preventative due to having the BRCA1 mutation. The surgery lowered my lifetime breast cancer risk from 80% to 5%.
P.S. I enjoy your references to Byron Katie. Read one of her books years ago and loved it.
80% to 5% – incredible! Sounds like you made the right decision. And my complication was super uncommon and keep in mind I had already gone through 6 months of chemo prior to that…so your chances of having a complication are slim. Oh my, Byron Katie’s work completely transformed my life, especially during treatment. I’ve actually turned this blog into a book and my inner inquiry work is woven throughout. So important to keep these sweet minds in check! Feel free to reach out to me anytime with questions or if you just need someone to talk to: email@example.com. Wishing you happy healing, softer boobies, and a lifetime of anti-gravity perks! xoxo
I have expanders in now and your lighthearted, honest article really was super encouraging to me today! Thank you!!
Thank you for this!! I have the same attitude about this whole thing, but seem to have lost it lately due to worry. My oncologist brought me out of it yesterday and this was the perfect thing to read today as my next step is a double mastectomy and reconstruction in a month. I hope you’re enjoying your newest boobs!!
Your post was great to read. I had a double mastectomy in February. I have had trouble finding a post that describes the trouble I’m having with my left arm. I had 11 lymph nodes removed and moving my arm feels like the muscle is going to rip under my armpit. My plastic surgeon does not give me an answer if this will improve when I have implants put in and I’m wondering if I even want implants, if this pain will continue in my arm. I just finished my radiation about 3 weeks ago so the surgeon said I have 8-12 months for the implants. I have started pt, twice a week, (have gone for 3 weeks) and work out 30 minutes a day, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much for the arm pain. Any advice you have would be great. Glad you are doing so well!
Hi Lori! Oh man, I sure don’t miss those tissue expanders 🙂 I think you are doing all of the right things by going to PT and exercising regularly. It definitely took some time for me to get back to my full range of motion (this process is a marathon). I also had a complication called cording – do you know if you have this? Long cords showed up in my armpit and ran down to my wrist. Regardless of if you have it or not – I was sent to PT to help with them. We did strengthening, lots of stretching, and massage. At home, I would often do my stretches in the shower where I felt the moisture helped to loosen my muscles. It was definitely more a of “no pain, no gain” attitude, which is not how I do/teach yoga. Turns out that was what was needed though to break of the cording. Self-massage at home was really helpful too – I would use coconut oil and gently massage starting with the outer breast, making small circles towards the nipple. I would apply it to my armpit area too and massage and stretch it. Radiation did continue to tighten my skin over time, my left nipple kind of pulled to the side. But now that I have my new breasts (it’s been 3 years since my boobieversary), they have softened sooooo much. It’s 1,000 times better than the expanders! You are close to the finish line, lady! Reach out anytime for support – firstname.lastname@example.org. Sending big hugs!
Bethany I am so glad I came across your website. I had a double mastectomy with reconstrution mid-July. Incisions are taking some time to heal, my drainage tubes were in longer than expected and when they were removed, also took longer than expected for one of the holes to close. Couple this with still bing considerable swollen, my PS is waiting to inject my expanders until my incisions are fully healed and the swelling is down. I see my PS this week, possibly getting my first injections since the surgery. Today is a full month from my bi-lateral mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. I am really trying to get used to the strange sensations with the expanders, which seems to change every day even though I have not yet had an injection since the surgery. One feeling that seems to be bothering me the most and is fairly new, is that I fell as if they dropped. Physically they look the same, other than the caved-in look near the armpits and the fatty overhang on top of it. Have you ever had that sensation?
I’m so glad you reached out! You are definitely in the midst of major healing time and your body will continue to shift and change. Are your expanders below or above the muscle? Mine were below so they used the pec muscle to secure the expander in place. And with that said, when I went through radiation – my left side moved up and tightened so I needed to stretch a ton to keep those ladies down! I’m sure your PS can answer if your expander has slipped out of place or moved down. It certainly is a time of feeling all kinds of weird sensations and it was important for me to keep my mind in check, stay present, and reach out to the docs if I had any big concerns. And once you begin your fills – you’ll get to see your boobs grow each week! It helped me so much to continue to remind myself that this is temporary and if I’m experiencing pain, to use medicine to support me too. And to give you peace of mind, I’m now 3 years with my new boobs and they are a world of difference compared to the expanders! Much softer, more natural-looking, comfortable, and that anti-gravity perk. And I also recently found out they glow in the dark when you hold a flash light up to them in a dark room – bright pink #glowboobs. So you have that to look forward to as well! Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you! Sending lots of love 🙂
Thank you Bethany for sharing. This was amazing and so informative. Thank you for being so open. I’m going through it now and now know my thoughts are the same as someone else’s. Your blog as made me feel like I’m not making up the pain of the expanders. I’ve been looking for information in more laymens terms regarding expanders.
Thank you 🙏🏽
I’m so grateful you found this helpful and I’m sending you so much love during your cancer journey! (And those final boobies will be sooo much better than expander land!)
I came across your blog as i’m preparing for round 4 of 6 of chemo (i’m halfway done). I just met with the plastic surgeon on Friday and he pretty just walked me through the process and it’s just as you have explained it here but a lot for comforting coming from you (although my doc was super cool and chill about it). Going from an H in UK cup/L in US cup to possibly a D or DD is going to be quite the adjustment for me. No more curved shoulders, no more heavy bra marks scarring and I can finally wear all the skimpy tops without a bra! Did I mention no more having to buy those expensive Goddess, Elomi, Maidenform, etc., bras from specialty bra stores??
The only concern I have at this point is my feeling like myself after all of this is over. I’m going to be left with a new set of tits, a bunch of scars both mental and emotional and there will be a physical change. My doc informed me they would have to take my nipple which means I’ll lose sensation. I mean, I did want a new tattoo but I just didn’t think it would be my nips so that’s a lot to comprehend.
Anywho, I just wanted to thank you for your blog. It really comforted me and gave me a lot of the insight that my doc couldn’t do (he was a bit too technical for me) and I will be referring to it quite often for assurance and reference.
It’s so good to hear from you and I’m so glad you found this post supportive! Tomorrow is actually my “boobieversary” – 6 years with my new foobs! Time flies and time heals…yes, your body is changing and you will soon gain new cancer-free weightless breasts that you’ll get to have many adventures with! Sending you much love through this big transition…you’ve got this!