Coffee Talk – What are Tissue Expanders?

What the heck is an expander? I get asked all the time about the expanders I had in while waiting for my reconstruction surgery, so this post is a little primer into the process after mastectomy if you’re choosing reconstruction. People are genuinely curious because they’ve never heard of them, and I guess that’s a good thing because they hurt. And they feel, well, plastic.

I know I’ve been gone from the blog for a few months, but that’s a good thing! I’ve been focused on healing from my surgeries and getting my energy back! I’m not there yet, but almost. I’m happy to say, I’m in a really good spot right now.

I took time to start enjoying things I used to enjoy, but had lost touch with during my breast cancer treatment. I focused on rest, reading, watching shows and movies again, self-care and drinking coffee.

Coffee Talk or what is a tissue expander


A couple weeks after my double mastectomy, I was told I had to go on a chemo pill because there was residual disease at the time of surgery. This is seen as an “insurance policy” to make sure no cell was left behind. It’s called Xeloda and it’s a bitch. I’m supposed to take 6 – 8 cycles {each cycle being two weeks on the pills and one week off.}

We started out strong, three pills in the morning and three pills at night, but because of the side effects, I was only able to do two cycles. This pill zaps your energy, continues to beat down your immune system, messes with your digestive system and causes hand and foot syndrome {where the skin on your hands and feet starts to peel off.}

We dose reduced to two pills in the morning and two pills at night. I did one cycle, then took time off for my reconstruction. A few weeks after that surgery, I did another cycle and right now I’m currently taking a break. All in, I’m at four cycles. The break is because I have so little energy and my body needs a break. It’s been under fire for nine months.

I’m meeting the oncologist in June to decide next steps. It’s such a mind game wondering if I’m doing the right thing. The options for triple negative breast cancer patient’s post-surgery are limited, but Xeloda seems to be a good one, so I don’t mind getting back on it if I need to.

Ok, back to the expanders.

So, what’s this about?! The mastectomy is performed by my cancer surgeon, but my plastic surgeon was also there to place the expanders where my breasts used to be. If I chose to stay the same size, she would’ve put in the implants at that time, but I chose to get a bit of an upgrade.

Expanders are basically a temporary implant. These were filled with air to what was my normal breast size. This was so they weren’t heavy with silicone which allowed for healing.

A few weeks post-surgery, I went in to have my first “fill.” At this appointment, the air was removed and replaced with actual silicone. There is a port in the expander which is found by using a magnet. The plastic surgeon then marked where the port was, she numbed my up, and used a big old needle and syringe filled with silicone.

I would go to the plastic surgeon every week and get “filled” or “pumped up” until I reached the size I wanted. This allows the skin to expand. If it sounds painful, know that it hurts like hell! At least for a day or so, then it was fine.

Once we got to the size I wanted, we scheduled my reconstruction surgery. This was a breeze! It happened at a surgery center, it lasted two hours as opposed to four, and the anesthesia was much more tolerable. I also had minimal pain, no drains, and was able to walk out of the surgery center no problem an hour after it was over.

After the mastectomy, it took me two hours just to wake up from the anesthesia.

I’m happy to be on the road to recovery, but this is emotionally and physically taxing. It’s stressful thinking about the future, so I try not to. I will spend the next couple years being physically checked every three months by my cancer surgeon. From there, if all is well, it goes to every six months for several years, and then finally every year. This is in lieu of a mammogram which I no longer need since I no longer have breast tissue.

Triple negative breast cancer, in particular, is very tricky because it’s the most aggressive type.  Each “all clear” is a huge weight off our shoulders. I’ve had my first all clear and will hold onto that until the next one.

The range of emotions is no joke. Happiness, sadness, confusion, anger, guilt, anxiety, love, gratitude, I’m scared, confident, not confident, stressed. All of it and more. But, my hair is growing back and is currently a pixie cut. I guess all I need now are faith and trust and pixie dust.

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