Vicky: My Journey through Breast Cancer and Reconstruction
At the age of 45, I am a two time breast cancer survivor. In September of 1994, during a routine check up, the doctor found a lump the size of a pea in my left breast. A lumpectomy was done and while there was no cancer in the lump, there were cancer cells in the margins. It was Ductal Carcinoma In-Situ (DCIS). I had six weeks of radiation treatment. Needless to say, the cancer diagnosis was a shock–I was only 31 years old, and there is no history of breast cancer in my family.
At this point in my life I couldn’t feel too sorry for myself. One of my best friends was battling for her life. My friend Missy had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma four years earlier. Her cancer was in remission but had come back a few months prior to my cancer diagnosis. When I called her for advice on which way to turn, she was able to recommend a great group of doctors and guide me through the whole process. For me, it was critical to find doctor’s I was comfortable with. The doctors I had were wonderful which made my whole cancer journey go very smoothly. I never felt sick, only tired as a result of the radiation. It was difficult for me to consider myself a cancer survivor after seeing the pain and suffering Missy went through. I didn’t go through any of that. Unfortunately, Missy lost her battle with cancer the weekend after Thanksgiving, 1994. I think of Missy often and will always remember her courage and friendship till the end.
Fast forward to March of 2008. I had moved from the Cincinnati, Ohio area to Atlanta, Georgia for my job in December of 2006. I went for an annual check up and mammogram. I got a call that said the mammogram showed something abnormal in the left breast so more tests would need to be done. I requested my previous mammogram films that were in Cincinnati so they could compare them to the current mammogram. I wasn’t too worried because I thought the “abnormal” was just the scar tissue from the lumpectomy surgery back in 1994. I got the previous films back and had an ultrasound. It showed a solid lump, once again, the size of a pea. A biopsy was done and the diagnosis was cancer – this time it was mucinous carcinoma.
Once again, I needed to find good doctors that I was comfortable with. Being new to the Atlanta area, I didn’t have the connections in the medical community like I did back in Cincinnati. Fortunately, I have a fantastic primary care physician – Dr. Laura Beaty. She was so helpful in recommending the various specialists I would need along the way.
The first doctor I went to was the breast surgeon. It was quickly determined that since I had already had radiation to the left breast, the only course of treatment was to have a mastectomy. I learned that you can only have radiation to the same body part once. So then I had to decide if I would have a preventive mastectomy on the right breast. First I wanted to do the breast cancer genetic testing to see if I had the BRCA1 or BRCA 2 mutations- if I did, I would have the preventive mastectomy on the right side. As it turned out, the test was negative. Finally some good news! The next step was finding a plastic surgeon because I knew I wanted immediate reconstruction surgery after the mastectomy.
I went to the plastic surgeon recommended by the breast surgeon. While I am sure he was a competent surgeon, he just wasn’t for me. He didn’t answer my questions to my satisfaction. I knew I had to find someone else. Dr. Beaty recommended two other plastic surgeons so I made appointments for both.
I met with Dr. Alexander and shortly into the discussion, I knew she was the plastic surgeon for me. She took the time to detail of all of the options available to me. She made me feel so comfortable. What impresses me the most about Dr. Alexander is her extreme confidence. Her positive, up beat attitude is infectious. She gave me the feeling that everything was going to be ok. For me, that peace of mind was priceless.
I had three surgeries over period of seven months. The end result is fantastic! Dr. Alexander is a true artist. I never imagined everything would turn out so well! I was really pleased with the whole process. Dr. Alexander and her staff took great care of me.
There are four pieces of advice I would give someone diagnosed with breast cancer. First, do your own research by searching the Internet and reading books. The book I found most helpful was Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book by Dr. Susan Love. Write down all of your questions so you can ask them to each doctor you visit. Second, get copies of every test and keep it in a notebook along with the business card of all of your doctors. Take it with you to every doctor you visit and every time you go to the hospital. Third, if you are not happy with how things are going, speak up and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If necessary, change doctors. Don’t be forced into something you don’t want to do or you are not comfortable doing. You are the ultimate decision maker. You are the only one that knows what feels right for you. Fourth, reach out to your family and friends for help. The love and support I received from my husband Bill as well as my family, friends and co-workers was outstanding. They were there for me the whole way which really helped me keep a positive outlook.