First, I want to give a big (((THANK YOU HUG)))) to the people that have read my blog this month. I didn’t realize how far reaching these posts would be. I am grateful and amazed at the impact we can make on other’s lives by simply sharing our struggles and giving each other hope.
It’s in my genes
After I recovered from chemo and radiation, my oncologist recommended I have a genetic test for BRCA 1 and 2 mutations. BRCA 1 and 2 are genes that help repair cells that turn cancerous. Having a defect (or BRCA mutation) makes it hard to fight breast cancer. People with these mutations tend to have more aggressive cancers and are typically diagnosed at an early age (check, check).
I didn’t really know anything about these mutations at the time. It seems like the world is pretty aware of these genetic defects now, especially after celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Christina Applegate went public with their choice to have double mastectomies after testing positive for BRCA.
I was tested in the summer of 2005. And yes, my test came back positive for a BRCA 2 mutation. So, what do I do now? That is the question many women who test positive ask themselves. I was pretty devastated learning that my risk for developing cancer in my other breast was somewhere in the 80-90%. After much thought, prayer, research, and genetic counseling, I made the decision to have a prophylactic mastectomy of my healthy breast, with immediate reconstruction of both breasts. At this point I was glad I didn’t seek reconstruction when I had my first mastectomy. It made it an easier decision to think I could have it all done at once.
The sad part about being BRCA positive is that my children have a 50% chance of carrying the same mutation. Knowing this is a double bladed sword. Knowledge is power, but it also brings a level of anxiety that some people don’t want to deal with. My children are aware of this risk. They plan on being diligent about their health. It will be up to them whether or not they decide to be tested in the future.
I told Mallory that my last post this month was going to be some Before and After pics of my reconstruction. She didn’t think that was very funny 🙂 I will warn you though, some of the links I share in this post may have before/after pictures of breast reconstruction, so if you don’t want to see that, don’t click on them.
Reconstructive surgery was no cake walk. In fact, putting everything back together is certainly much more complicated. As soon as I was given a clean bill of health (or as clean as it could be) and finding out of my overall risk of cancer in the future, I started researching my next surgery. I had to remove the ticking time bomb on the left side and fix up the ugly -but cancer free- mess I’d been left with on the right.
At this point, my head was clear enough. I didn’t feel the pressure of cancer growing inside me, so I took some time to research my options. My situation was unique in that I had a complete mastectomy on the right side plus I also had chest wall radiation, which made my skin less pliable and not suitable for traditional implant reconstruction. To have the best result I needed to have a more complicated procedure where skin was transplanted to the area and my own tissue was used to form a breast. I ran across the TRAM reconstruction where skin from the abdomen is used including your abdominal muscle to form a breast. I didn’t like the idea of loosing my abdominal muscle, so I wondered if this surgery could be done without sacrificing muscle in the process. That is when I came across the DIEP flap reconstruction. In a DIEP flap, fat, skin, and blood vessels are cut from the wall of the lower belly and moved up to your chest to rebuild your breast. I had a little pooch I could spare and my abdominal muscle would remain untouched. That is the surgery I wanted. The problem? It is a very complicated procedure where blood vessels are joined under a microscope then the new breast is transplanted to the chest. This surgery poses a risk of flap loss, meaning the breast could die if circulation doesn’t “take”. Skilled surgeons in this particular type of surgery are few. There was no one in Utah that did it. I flew to Virginia and to Louisiana for consults and finally decided to go with the surgeons at the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans. These surgeons have a 99% success rate in this type of reconstruction. They do it every day. People travel there from all over the US for breast reconstruction surgery. They also do a lot of preventive mastectomies/reconstructions on women with positive BRCA tests. I spoke with patients who’d had the procedure. I saw many before/after photos. I felt like I was in the best hands. Besides all of this, these doctors are the nicest human beings on the face of the planet. I can’t speak highly enough of the care I received there.
In December, 2005 I had the first stage of a 3-stage surgery. Stage 1 was a 9-hour surgery. They removed the breast tissue on my healthy side, sparing the skin and nipple, and replaced it with a silicone implant. My mastectomy side was reconstructed with skin and fat from my abdomen, no muscle was sacrificed. Ideally, the surgeons would have used my own fat for both breasts, but I didn’t have enough. I had many people offer to donate, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way 🙂
So yes, I woke up from surgery with 2 breasts and a flat stomach. But, before you think about how “lucky” I am (some people have actually said that), let me tell you that if given the choice today, I would take my pooch and my original breasts back, if it meant that I never had to deal with cancer again 🙂
I flew back to New Orleans twice for revisions and nipple reconstruction. My husband went with me for every surgery. I love that man. The remaining surgeries were outpatient procedures. The entire process took about 18 months. Once everything was finished and healed the color of the nipple and areola of my reconstructed breast was tattooed on, to match my left side. Pretty cool, huh?
Life after cancer
When I think about all of the things I prayed for while going through cancer, I am humbled that my prayers were answered. Every single one. I was worried about all of the things I would miss if cancer took my life: graduations, weddings, grandchildren, growing old with my husband. I am so grateful I was given the chance to live longer and experience the things I have so far. I hope and pray for many more.
See how I saved the best for last? I am so blessed! Thanks for reading!