Breast reconstruction can be a tricky thing. For those of you facing tissue expanders, know that it’s completely temporary. What you see is NOT what you’ll get. Your reconstructed breasts will look and feel completely different from your tissue expanders. I’ve heard it said that you cannot have reconstruction before radiation. This is a half-truth: You can’t have completed reconstruction, but you may have delayed reconstruction.

Tissue Expanders With Mastectomies

I had my tissue expanders put in place during my mastectomies, before I started radiation therapy. Surprise, surprise, mastectomy surgery SUCKS!!! I was in pain for several days. I had what doctors refer to as “T-Rex arms”: I could use my forearms, but my biceps needed to be stuck to my sides for a few weeks while my pectoral muscles healed. During mastectomy surgery, all breast tissue is removed. They actually scraped my muscles to make sure they got every last bit of breast tissue, which added additional trauma to my pectorals.

Expander Placement

When the doctor places tissue expanders, they’re placed under the pectoral muscle. They butterfly it, like you would a piece of beef or chicken. Then they pull the top portion of the muscle up and stitch the tissue expander inside the newly formed pocket. Alloderm, made from cadaver skin, is then stitched to the top and bottom portion of the pectoral muscle to create a sling for the expander. Drains are placed into your chest cavity so fluid buildup from all the trauma will drain out. Some ladies may not have much pain, especially if you’re taking the prescribed pain medications. The doctors do a great job of keeping your pain under control; they want you to be as comfortable as you possibly can be after such a surgery. If you’re in pain, make sure you talk to your doctor.

Tissue Expansion Process

A week out from my mastectomy surgeries, I visited my doctor to get my first round of expansion. The doctor placed a long needle into the ports of the tissue expanders. This needle was attached to a syringe filled with saline solution and a dye. The dye is to let them know if the tissue expander is leaking. Air was placed in my expanders during surgery, so this was sucked out first before I was filled with saline. It’s…a unique experience to say the least. I watched my chest shrink and shrivel as the air was removed. Watching them grow from saline injections is just as bizarre. Go Go Gadget Breasts!

Check out this YouTube video for a visual explanation.

During Tissue Expansion

I would take 800mg of Advil before going in for tissue expansion. During the expansion, as the saline goes in, you can feel your skin and muscles stretching, not unlike Tarzan flexing for Jane. When I was done I had severe pain in my back which was really surprising. The back pain was the worst part of my expansion process, and the pain increased with every expander fill. My back felt like it was on fire, especially my shoulder blades. I would take a muscle relaxer when I got home. I had these prescribed to me when I had my mastectomies. A heating pad on my shoulder blades helped my back muscles relax. I kept taking 800mg of Advil every 6-8 hours, and I used IcyHot on my muscles. My sister was kind enough to rub my back, and the pain went away after a couple of days.

Life Today

Once the process is complete, and my muscles had a chance to settle down from the surgeries and the expansion, I began to get use to the expanders. They felt heavier at first, but after a while, and with some physical therapy (start this as soon as your doctor will allow!), I stopped noticing them. There are times when they feel evident, like when I’m laying on my side. I feel some very minor discomfort when I’m moving in certain ways, but overall they don’t bother me much.

I have to be careful about certain exercises. For instance, my doctor doesn’t want me doing anything, like push-ups, that might tug at my expanders, aka: the stitches holding them in place. I’ve already popped the stitches on one expander, and now it moves around. Not a whole lot, mind you, or else my surgeon might have made me go under another surgery to get it back in place.

The part I really don’t like is the scar tissue build-up. It can get a little tender, but my physical therapy helps to break all that up. Right now, I’m currently experimenting with Vitamin E cream to try and soften my muscles and the scar tissue around my expanders. I’m hoping this will be effective, especially on my left side where I was radiated. The skin shrunk and tightened to the point where it was uncomfortable. Again, physical therapy and stretching has helped my tissue to ease up a bit.

While I don’t mind the expanders, I will not shed tears when it’s time for them to go, and I’m greatly looking forward to getting my new “Foobs” (Fake Boobs) in the next couple of months!

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