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The struggle beyond breast cancer: Surviving in a new body

It doesn't take a genius to know that boobs are collateral damage. The real challenges come on the heels of the things you don't expect.
/ Source: TODAY

The minute I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2012, my focus in life became a singular mission: survive. For two years, I lived day to day facing each new phase of treatment and fighting through it. There was no question that battling and beating breast cancer would be an epic feat. But after five surgeries, chemotherapy and reconstruction, the struggle to survive with a new body proves to be an even bigger challenge.

By the time I was declared cancer-free in October 2014, I was a totally different person. Returning to “normal” life wasn’t seamless. I didn’t look the same and I didn’t feel the same. There were moments I felt so disconnected from myself, it was as though I was starring in a remake of "Revenge of the Body Snatchers."

Chemotherapy treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital
Caitlin's second chemotherapy treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.Caitlin Kiernan

Most of the changes were physical. In order to lower the chances of a recurrence, I opted to have a double mastectomy. I believe in making the most of any situation, so I sized up from an A to a C cup. (Thank you, Cancer!)

It took five surgeries: two to remove the cancer and three for the various phases of reconstruction. My doctors did an amazing job recreating the look of real breasts. But with no breast tissue, implants and tattooed nipples, they’ve taken a minute to absorb and adjust to.

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My new breasts were created with tear drop-shaped “gummy bear” implants. Made from cohesive silicone, they resemble the consistency and texture of gummy bears (hence the nickname) and are the FDA-approved implants for reconstruction.

The upside is that they won’t leak. The downside is that they are extremely firm and don’t move. I am constantly aware of them — even when sleeping. Lying on my stomach puts too much pressure on the implants. Lying on one side pushes the implant against the surgical seam of the breast pocket, causing discomfort and pain. I toss and turn all night.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that boobs are obvious collateral damage when it comes to breast cancer. The real challenges come on the heels of the things you don’t expect.

After I finished chemo, I was put on tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker that prevents the spread of certain types of cancer. I was told it would put me into early menopause, but I didn’t grasp how this would affect me physically.

Caitlin Kiernan spends time golfing at Chelsea Piers after her reconstruction.
Caitlin spent time hitting golf balls at Chelsea Piers after her reconstruction was finally over.Caitlin Kiernan

Six months after going on the drug, I gained 20 pounds, my hair texture changed, my nails started peeling and my skin got dry and crepey. Any one of these issues would normally send me over the edge, but since I used to be a beauty director, I had a few tricks up my sleeve that helped minimize the side effects.

But if I dare go one day without hydrating face cream, nail strengthener or leave-in conditioner, I transform into the shriveled witch from Snow White. It’s a grind.

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I was also warned about another side effect: the hot flashes. My body temperature is in a constant state of flux. One minute I am fine, the next moment a warm flush begins to heat my body and within seconds I am dripping with sweat that soaks my hair, my clothes — even the sheets.

It’s one thing when it happens when I am alone and can towel off with some dignity. But it’s not so sexy when I’m on a date. I’m still trying to figure out how to play that one off.

But it’s the weight gain that has been the hardest thing for me to deal with. It is emotionally draining to try and get dressed when nothing fits. Every morning, I find myself on the verge of tears while trying to get ready. Tops, blazers and sweaters are snug because of my reconstruction. Jeans, skirts and even dresses don’t make it past my knees because of the pounds I’ve packed on from the tamoxifen.

It may seem vapid, but my clothes and sense of style were part of my identity, and how I expressed myself. I used to love getting dressed up. Now, I feel frustrated and lost. Every time I open my closet, I see tangible reminders of the skinny and stylish person I was before cancer. It adds insult to injury.

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I tried to lose the weight, but no matter how many hours I log in at the gym or how restrictive I am with my calories, my metabolism has slowed to a snail's pace. The result is that my menopausal muffin top won’t budge. Trust me when I say I’m doing everything I can to match my saggy 44-year-old tush to these 20-year-old-like breasts. I’m working so hard, it’s like a second job.

Who knew health would come with a body I no longer recognize? The silver lining is that while it is foreign to me at the moment, I am happier than I have ever been. I am still struggling to come to terms with the new challenges I face being a cancer survivor, but I am alive and healthy. Does that erase all these things? No. But it certainly helps me embrace them.