A few people have admitted to me that there are things they want to know about my experience that they’ve been hesitant to ask. Through conversation and comments, a common thread I have found is that people are curious about the pain and sensations that I may experience now that my breast is gone. I thought I’d take a moment to talk about that today.
I remember watching shows like MASH as a kid and learning about the tragedy of phantom limb pain. I knew that there were really and truly people out there who experienced agony in a limb that was no longer there. The way I understood it was that they felt severe pain and mistakenly attributed it to their missing part. In my personal experience, this is only partly true.
My phantom pain came several days after my mastectomy. At first, I had very little pain; I generally just called it discomfort. My pectoral muscle hurt after not too long, in a way unlike I’d ever felt before. It was sort of like I had exercised too much with that one area when I hadn’t used it for a long time- you know that feeling. It was like that, only imagine that instead of stopping when I was tired at the gym, I continued until my pec exploded. So, that hurt. Then, maybe three days later, I started to feel something mildly painful but infinitely frustrating.
I could feel my nipple burning as if it were running against sandpaper. If I closed my eyes, I could point to exactly where the pain was coming from. While I could not feel my breast in my hand, I could touch where my pain was located. I could provide myself with no relief, but I could certainly show you where the pain emanated from. As I’m sure you know, I was touching/pointing to/cradling the air a few inches away from the wall of my chest. This sensation was unlike any other I’ve ever experienced because not only could I provide myself no relief from it, even when it became intense, but my brain could not understand it. I was stuck in a loop between logic and sensation, and my brain could not cope. It has been one of the most challenging aspects of this process for me.
As time has passed, my brain and logic are winning the argument, at least in my best moments. I occasionally feel my missing breast, and I’ve even had a couple of times now when I tried to do something, like dry myself under it, without thinking only to realize it isn’t there. Instead of being bothered by this, I simply understand it as muscle memory and take it as a positive sign hat I’m healing. After all, if I was so awfully uncomfortable and in so much pain, I could let forget that my breast is now gone and there’s no need to run a washcloth under it anymore. I take it as an indication that I’m healing, and healing is the most important process of all.