Having My Breasts Removed Helped Me Show My Daughters How To Be Comfortable in Their Own Skin

I wasn’t prepared for all the compliments I’d receive when I got my breast implants. I had perfect breasts. They were so ideal that I consented to have them on full display on my plastic surgeon’s website. I was proud of my new breasts, and I wanted every fellow young breast cancer survivor to know that they could also have an amazing breast reconstruction. I even joked I’d one day be the “hottest old lady in the nursing home.”

I thought my mastectomy and direct-to-implant surgery would be a one-and-done (for-a-long-time). I swapped out my old breast tissue, which contained multiple, teeny, malignant tumors, for silicone bags—and believed I’d live happily ever after. But the fairytale turned into a nightmare.

From the outside, I looked pretty good. I had the ideal, curvaceous body — you know, the one you see all over Instagram. My breasts wouldn’t sag with age. They were prominent and perfect, filling every bikini top and v-neck tee.

However, I began experiencing strange and seemingly-unrelated symptoms. One morning, I woke up and noticed my feet felt heavy, like they were encased in drying cement. After popping in my contact lenses, I noticed my toes were a gloomy shade of purple-gray. I began experiencing increasing anxiety, yellow-tinted skin, and achy joints and muscles. Suddenly, I was unable to consume certain foods and drinks including strawberries, guacamole, green tea, and shrimp. Though I was always exhausted, my heart felt like it was always racing. At one point, I ended up in the emergency room with a pulmonary embolism.

I brought these concerns to multiple medical professionals, including specialists. I had scans, labs, and exams. Each time, doctors were perplexed. More than one physician suggested my symptoms were all in my head. I grew increasingly depressed and anxious, so much so that I prayed God would let me die in my sleep. I was trapped in my own body.

Thankfully, my breakthrough happened when I did some digging into my symptoms and discovered a social media group dedicated to women with breast implant illness, also known as BII. Reading post after post, I had an “aha” moment. The reason I wasn’t diagnosed with any specific ailment was simple: breast implant illness isn’t recognized as an official medical condition. Yet over 150,000 women in the social media group believed it was real. Many of them posted before (with implants) and after side-by-side pictures, demonstrating the major differences between living in a chronic state of inflammation and healing.

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That day, I called my plastic surgeon and scheduled an appointment. Waiting the three weeks to speak with her was torturous, but for the first time in over a year, I felt hopeful. When we did speak, I told her I wanted to explant: period. I had zero reservations. My breast implants were poisoning me.

I continued to experience over 29 different symptoms until the day I explanted. During this time, I got my house ready, my husband re-arranged his work schedule, and I told my kids that my implants were coming out. Of course, they had a million questions — and I answered every single one.

I will never forget when my then-9-year-old daughter came to me one day with a drawing in her hand. She drew a progression of me. There was the (then) current me: a stick figure who appeared sad. Next, there was me in the OR, surrounded by doctors. Finally, there was an arrow drawn to the post-op me. I was grinning, with two Xs drawn across my chest. To this day, I treasure this kiddie art more than almost anything else.

Having implants stole precious time from me. There were days I was bedridden, crying, tired, and anxious. My youngest was a preschooler, full of energy and “watch me, Mommy,” and I couldn’t keep up. I had to merely make it through holidays and birthdays, couldn’t volunteer at their school, missed church. Even when I was awake and physically present, my mind was elsewhere.

My youngest, shortly after explant, ran up to me and gave me a hug while I was talking to another parent. She announced, “I like hugging my mommy better now that she had her boobs cut off!” I laughed and explained to the woman I’d had a mastectomy and breast implant removal.

I think — and hope — I’m doing a good job showing my four children that society doesn’t get to define beauty and health. Our bodies and minds need us to be good to them. Nourishing food, exercise, rest, and deciding how we define our own beauty are key. Limiting my kids’ exposure to social media has been helpful, as well as practicing what I preach. I want to show them that it’s possible to be comfortable in your own skin, even when it doesn’t conform to society’s “normal” beauty standards.

I explanted two and a half years ago, and I have zero regrets. My chest is marked with scars, but I can lift weights, hug people, sleep on my stomach — things I could barely do with implants. All 29 debilitating symptoms are gone. I often swim and work out topless. I post social media pictures and videos reminding viewers to do self-exams and get mammograms, as well as implore everyone to understand that breast implants have an FDA black box warning for a reason. Breast implant illness is real, and I believe it almost took my life.

A post shared by Rachel Garlinghouse: adoption🤎🤍breast cancer🎀 (@whitesugarbrownsugar)

My journey has been tumultuous, but ultimately, victorious. All four of my kids have suffered as a result of my suffering. I was a mentally absent mom for too long, all because I believed I was “too young” not to have breasts. Giving breast implants a three-year trial run was the worst mistake of my life. However, through my struggle, my kids have watched me advocate for myself and others, they’ve seen me shed the weight of toxic beauty standards and beliefs — and most of all, they have their mom back.

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