Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a young girl who had never battled breast cancer. And in that time long ago, in a land far away, in the time before battling breast cancer, I had also never climbed mountains, or been chased by an elephant, or danced until dawn on a rooftop overlooking Beirut, or made a film… or caught a steelhead trout on a fly.
I was 31 when I found a lump in my right breast and was diagnosed with invasive ductile breast cancer. Although the tumor was relatively small, it was aggressive and had already spread to my lymph nodes. After much research and seven “second opinions,” I decided to match aggression with aggression and underwent a lumpectomy, high-dose chemotherapy and radiation.
Eighteen years later, a routine annual check-up revealed a new tumor, near the original site of my disease. Thankfully, this one was not so aggressive and there was no evidence of any metastasis. I was again fortunate to have access to wonderful medical professionals who supported me in researching treatment options, and this time, I opted for a mastectomy. Unlike the first time I was diagnosed however, this time I was already thinking ahead - to life after breast cancer, round two - which lead me to another series of decisions I needed to make. Would I have breast reconstruction after my mastectomy and if so, what type of reconstruction would I have? Would I have reconstruction at the same time as my mastectomy? Did I want to have a prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction on the left side as well?
The information I needed to answer these questions was not readily available in one place and required more digging and interviewing of doctors and patients. I finally decided that I did want to have reconstruction and that I wanted to have a DIEP flap reconstruction. I liked the fact that a DIEP flap would use my own tissue to create my new breast and wouldn’t sacrifice any abdominal or shoulder muscles in the process. I also decided that I wanted to have my procedure done at the same time as my mastectomy. I liked the fact that I wouldn’t have to undergo a second round of anesthesia for reconstruction and that I would wake up from my operation with my new breast intact. This left me with just one more, albeit vital, question: who and where to have my procedure done.
After my first bout of breast cancer, I had joined a team of fellow breast cancer survivors to climb the highest peak in South America to raise money for breast cancer research. Amongst our support team was Dr. Bud Alpert, one of the finest doctors in the world and I turned to him for a recommendation. He sent me to the right address!
Having been assured that I was meeting with one of the foremost experts in DIEP flap technology, I was immediately struck by my reconstructive surgeon's patience and compassion when we met. He carefully walked me through the procedure, answered all of my questions and concerns, examined me and determined that I was a good candidate for a DIEP flap.
In an eight hour procedure, the surgical team removed my “recalcitrant” breast and fashioned me a brand new one from tissue he transferred from my abdomen. I woke bruised and a little swollen, but in very little pain. Six months after my first operation, I had a follow up procedure where he created a “nipple” on my new breast and the physical, aesthetic and emotional results are truly remarkable. Two years on, the only visible reminder of my cancer recurrence is a small, barely noticeable scar.
Over the years, I’ve met countless women around the world who, like me, have gone on after breast cancer to thrive in ways they might not have predicted. The Beautiful After Breast Cancer Foundation has been set up in order to help all women look forward to that time after treatment and I am thrilled to have joined forces with Dr. Blondeel in its creation.
Now…. there’s the issue of that steelhead trout I have still not managed to catch….