Suzanne Groves-Donaldson, 50, Launceston, Tas
'Ouch!’ I winced as the car lurched over a speed bump. I had fibrocystic breast disease, which meant any tiny movements or jolts sent pain shooting through me. It also caused lumps and cysts, which meant I’d had a few worrying ultrasounds.
My 16DD boobs were beginning to get me down. So I consulted my GP, and was referred to a surgeon to discuss having a preventative double mastectomy and reconstruction. While it might seem extreme, I constantly lived in fear.
What if my condition meant cancer went undetected? I work as a nurse and have seen how quickly breast cancer can destroy lives.
My hubby Nick, 33, was really supportive. So in December last year I decided to have the operation. Waking up after, I was pleasantly surprised that the pain wasn’t too bad.
The next day I unbuttoned my nightdress and saw that my breasts had dark purple patches on them. It looked unsightly but I presumed it was just bruising from the invasive surgery. Drains attached to my chest were removed the next day. After giving me antibiotics the surgeon said I could leave. He hadn’t inspected my breasts, but when I took a peek later, I saw they’d gone an even darker shade of purple and it was spreading.
Over the next week some areas were turning black. There was also a trickle of fluid under my right breast. Is this normal? I fretted. But I tried not to worry.
A week after the procedure, I returned for a check-up. My breasts felt swollen and tight. The surgeon examined my breasts and removed 400ml of mucky fluid from each. He sent samples to pathology. ‘Come in again tomorrow,’ he said. Afterwards, a nurse assured me that everything was fine.
The next day the surgeon made a small incision under my left breast so the gunky fluid could flow out freely. I had to wear maternity pads to stop the liquid seeping through my clothes. A couple of days later, my breasts had become like two dead plates of tissue. I had to ‘milk’ my left breast several times a day to remove fluid. I was at my wits’ end.
‘I think something is really wrong,’ I said to Nick tearfully.
In a panic, I visited my GP who was shocked. Phoning for my pathology results, she gave me some bad news.
‘You’ve got peptostreptococcus,’ she said. The flesh-eating bacterial infection was spreading across my breasts. My boobs were being eaten by a bug!
In danger of going into toxic shock, which could be deadly, my GP put me on intravenous antibiotics. Two days later I went back to see my surgeon. But I was in so much shock I barely took in a word.
‘I’ll see you in surgery tomorrow,’ he said.
I was terrified. I knew the blackened flesh was dead and useless, but it covered my entire chest. Would I have any breasts left after surgery?
Nervously going in for the op the next day, I just wanted the ordeal to be over. When I woke up, bandages were stuck to my chest, but I could see where my breasts used to be was now flat.
When I plucked up the courage to look under the bandages, what I saw stunned me to the core. Instead of breasts, I just had folds and puckers of skin. My nipples had also been removed. The scars didn’t even look neat, I felt completely disfigured.
Where had my breasts gone?
Revealing them to Nick, he tried to hide it but he looked horrified.
‘You’ve been butchered,’ he said in shock. Tears streamed down my face. Where had my breasts gone? All the tissue and muscle had been removed, just leaving skin pulled across my ribs.
My surgeon said he would try to repair the damage once the scars had healed, but I couldn’t bear it. Seeking a second opinion in Melbourne, the surgeon was horrified by what she saw and is still trying to find a solution.
But my breasts will never be the same.
It’s been seven months since my ordeal and it’s affected every part of my life. I’m currently seeing a psychologist for post-traumatic stress disorder as I’m frightened of seeing my own naked body. I avoid showering and never look in the mirror.
Before the op, I was happy with Nick but now I find it difficult to even hug him. Without boobs I don’t feel like a real woman.
I avoid going out, but if I do, I wear baggy clothes and feel ashamed.
I’m telling my story to warn other women about the dangers of surgery. Most people think complications can only happen overseas, but I’m proof it can happen in Australia. Post-operative care is so important.
I wish I’d spoken up and demanded a second opinion. I’ve paid for it with more than my boobs.
Originally published in issue 29 of that's life! magazine - July 21, 2016.