On Tuesday, August 21, 2012, Living Beyond Breast Cancer will host a free teleconference, Breast Reconstruction: Considering Your Options, featuring Frederick Duffy, Jr, MD, FACS. LBBC is lucky to have a wonderful network of women willing to share their stories on these more personal, yet under represented matters in the breast cancer community. Join the LBBC Blog in welcoming Eve Wallinga, as she shares why she chose reconstruction.
When I learned I’d need a mastectomy, I never considered not having reconstruction. I didn’t even care if I was symmetrical, as long as I didn’t wake up with a blank chest.
Maybe I’m not as strong as other women, not as sure of who I am, as confident of my femininity. Or maybe I’m stronger. Strong enough to endure more surgery, pain, and recuperation to restore my breast. Strong enough to draw the line at losing that part of myself to this relentless disease. I needed to know I’d done all I could to fight and win.
I was fortunate to be referred to a plastic surgeon. Not all women are even told about reconstruction. But I was offered only two techniques, because those were the ones the plastic surgeons in my area performed.
I didn’t like the idea of abdominal muscle being cut and my tissue being tunneled up through my body while it stayed attached down below (called a “pedicled TRAM“). So I opted for an implant, which would be placed at the time of mastectomy and gradually filled over several months. Didn’t sound fun, but at least I wouldn’t wake up with nothing.
An hour before surgery, fate intervened with a twist. Seemed my cancer was a rare type. Maybe I’d need radiation after all. Since radiation and implants don’t mix, I’d have to delay reconstruction and face my nightmare scenario of waking up without a breast.
When I first took off that wide white bandage, I squinted my eyes to blur the sight. I turned away from the mirror when I dressed, closed my right eye to block any peripheral view of the empty space, wore a bikini top to bathe, a padded bra during the day. For sleeping, I cut out the left side of an old padded bra, so my left breast would be unfettered, but my right side covered.
But now, I can honestly say the delay was the best thing that happened. I had time to research options and realized I wasn’t limited to local reconstruction techniques. I saw online photos where I could hardly tell which breast was the original and which was the reproduction, and women whose bodies looked better in the “after” pictures than the “before.” I took an informed leap of faith and headed to New Orleans for stacked DIEP flap reconstruction.
Living without a breast for a few months made me better appreciate waking up with my new one. It’s beautiful. It’s me. Like my old breast was magically resurrected. I don’t feel like I ever had a mastectomy.
Despite your desire to get the cancer out of your body quickly, in most cases you can and should take the time to do homework. Depending on your circumstances, you can have immediate reconstruction or delayed, even by years. There are now skin-sparing mastectomies, even nipple-sparing, where basically the cancerous “stuffing” is removed and replaced with an implant or your own tissue. More fat sources are available for flap reconstruction, including gluteal flaps (your derriere), which I chose to reconstruct my other breast, prophylactically, several years after the first.
Your choice of surgeon is as important as your choice of reconstruction technique. Find a specialist with experience specific to what you want, and if you want a flap, don’t let the doctor dissuade you by saying you don’t have enough fat. Maybe that surgeon wants you to go with the only procedure they know, or they’re not experienced enough with flaps to make it work. Ask how many procedures they’ve done, what their success rate is, look at their before and after pictures, and talk to a former patient or two.
You can check out sites like www.breastcancer.org where there are discussion boards about all different kinds of reconstruction, and you’re sure to find women in the same situation as yours, as well as those further down the road, happy to share what they’ve learned. If you decide on reconstruction, there are many possibilities, though unfortunately none of the techniques are easy. But being a cancer survivor, you’ve already endured worse. I’ve made it a personal crusade to try to help empower women with knowledge about their choices. Whatever you choose, best of luck!
Eve Wallinga is a 6-year breast cancer survivor who lives in St. Cloud, MN with her husband and Yorkshire Terrier. Her two children have flown the nest. She is a co-founder of the Breastoration Foundation. Click here to read her blog, “The Breast of the Story.” Also, be sure to check out the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Event Page where you can get more information on the upcoming August teleconference on Breast Reconstruction: Considering Your Options.