Eve Wallinga: “It’s beautiful. It’s me.”

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.

11 thoughts on “Eve Wallinga: “It’s beautiful. It’s me.”

  1. I am so pleased that your reconstruction was so successful, Eve. I think that many women feel rushed into choosing a type of recon, because they are so anxious just to have the cancer removed. I was one myself. I wish that more women were aware that taking a few weeks to decide is usually ok.

  2. I love your story, I had a mastectomy and suffered so much from infections and delayed treatment that I wanted no more surgery. I am still weak and disturbed by all I’ve been through. I think now it would best for me mentally to have the reconstruction.I will watch your broadcast and go from there thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks so much for the positive feedback!

    Carlise, I’m not involved in the broadcast, my blog was just kind of a lead-in to the doctor’s webcast. It does makes good sense, sometimes, to have a break while you heal from what you’ve been through. Studies show that women who wait actually end up happier with their reconstructions. I do believe it’s because we appreciate those new breasts all the more. And the good news is that you can delay as long as you want and still have fabulous results. Good luck with your reconstruction!

    Pink Kitchen, I felt the same way as you – just wanted that cancer out of me as quickly as possible. I also wish that the doctors would tell their patients that waiting a while to decide is not going to make any difference in their prognosis re: the cancer, most of the time. But it sure can make a big difference in what type of reconstruction they choose – which is something they’ll have with them for the long life they, hopefully, have ahead of them.

  4. So perfect to read this NOW! My bilateral mastectomy was in April. I had cancer in the left breast but spent the year preceding my diagnosis with throbbing breast pain in both breasts. I knew then that whatever was going on in the left had to also be going on in the right no matter what the mammogram showed. And I opted for bilateral surgery because I was sure I wanted reconstruction and matching breasts. (I am 5’1″ with a short torso) Plastic surgeon I selected was well known for beautiful and natural facial cosmetic surgery, nice enough cosmetic breast surgery, but had little breast reconstruction to show. He said I didn’t have enough belly fat for flap reconstruction. Last week I went to a thoroughly wonderful presentation at my Hopewell Breast Cancer Support group here in Baltimore and saw many slides of various flap reconstructions. It was enlightening. Just as you commented, this guest surgeon suggested that perhaps my surgeon just was not comfortable or experienced with the flap surgery, and that even if I didn’t have a belly full of fat that I could use a combination of belly fat and implants. He said he gets the best results with less rejection using implants with some belly fat. Since I was going the expander and implant route anyhow, this really gave me something to think about. I just was not satisfied with the first surgeon, and in the last month I have heard from 4 women about the beautiful DIEP flap surgery performed by this guest presenter. I am forever asking women who have had reconstructive surgery to show me their new girls and everyone has kindly helped me through this! It is such a relief to have such support and a great resource like Hopewell since it is clear that even the best breast surgeon (and I have the best breast surgeon and a terrific oncologist) is likely to steer you to a colleague, but not necessarily the best doctor for your job…and at 53 a tummy tuck would be a plus!

  5. Starlight nipples,
    I’m so glad you were able to get good information to help you with your recon decision! The surgeons I went to sometime combine implants with flaps. They also stack/combine flaps from different parts of the body. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a reconstructive surgeon who knows what he’s talking about, isn’t afraid to say it, is out there informing women of their choices, and who knows how to perform the surgery that you feel is right for you! As you say, there are plastic surgeons who do beautiful work on other parts of the body, but if breast reconstruction is not their specialty (and breast augmentation, which lots of plastic surgeons do, is totally different from breast reconstruction), it’s best to find another doc. Pretty soon I bet you’ll be one of those gals, like me, who will be only too happy to show your beautiful new girls to whomever wants to take a look! I can also attest to the pluses of a tummy tuck – I admire my tummy in the mirror, now, as much as my new breasts!

  6. I want to thank you, Eva, for bringing up this discussion, and for “deconstructing” reconstruction so well! I forgot to tell you how inspirational your post was yesterday — I had earlier just spent 4 hours at Nordstrom getting fitted for breast forms and bras. I reluctantly scheduled after coming to the realization that reconstruction won’t even take place until next spring! I thought this was all going to be 1,2,3 — chemo, surgery, radiation, recon. But I didn’t figure in all the side effects I would have from treatments, which gave me some time to explore options. I am so glad I did not rush into surgery. I have also gotten very used to bralessness and an easy flatchested comfort zone. But I wanted the option of getting dressed in my beautiful wardrobe again, and although I love my edgy look, I want to feel more sexy and fashionable, even thinking I have the opportunity to go a little larger. Nordstrom really did a fantastic job and I was able to find more than the matronly grandmother bras that the breast form company sells. Nordstrom had two bras already with pockets for forms sewn in, both very comfortable and supportive, but not sexy, not pretty, and one of the choices had seams in the cups — that seems like a bad throwback! I have never chosen anything but a smooth cupped t-shirt enhancing fit ever since I’ve had the choice. My lingerie associate and I spent hours selecting form size, bras, cup styles, etc. and all my choices are next receiving sewn-in pockets tailored by N’s alterations department. I got a lacy bra, a purple bra, even a Spanx bra! It was totally uplifting! hahaha, and I was surprised to learn that I would need another pair of forms to go swimming; the first were not saltwater/chlorine compatible. Who knew? And now I know that fit is everything for a small woman with ample breasts — if your boobies sit too far out to the side it will make you look heavier than you are. A good fit will put your girls front and center. The breast form company’s bras did not do that; and that’s also why I chose my pretty bras. I am working on telling the breast form company to get it together! I am going back to work this week after nearly a year of treatment and my radiation left me with terrible burns that didn’t even begin to show up until two weeks after radiation was finished. No one told me to expect that. It is still not particularly comfortable to wear a bra, and I have gotten so spoiled! That’s why I adopted the name Starlight nipples — no 3D nipples for me when this is all over; just a pretty tattoo. There has to be a win/win somewhere here, right? Fabulous perky boobies, and then no need for a bra, and with no projectile nipples I can even go to work braless! And that tummy tuck! Long live the cancer free life!
    Good health, love, and many blessings to you, Eva.

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