A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Of Butts & Breasts

I hadn't had this many men try to get me naked since college. Every time I turned around -- whether it was a doctor's visit or a test -- I was having to take my clothes off.

After I received my results right before Thanksgiving, I began researching surgeons to discuss my options. I needed to locate a team of 3 surgeons who regularly worked together: breast surgeon (to remove my breast tissue), ovarian cancer surgeon (to remove my ovaries) and plastic surgeon (for breast reconstruction).

From my experience with breast cancer, I found the best way to choose a doctor was by tapping into my trusty network.

I knew exactly who to call -- a breast cancer survivor who had had a mastectomy & reconstruction and was heavily involved with fundraising, and well-connected to the breast cancer community.

She didn't hesistate. "Dr. Bill. He's the best in the business. I'd go to no one but him." Dr. Bill apparently helped develop the "tram flap" in the 1980s and was widely sought for his expertise.

A tram flap is a procedure in which they essentially cut out a section of your stomach (or back or back of your thigh) and remove tissue-fat-nerves-vessels and transplant that under your breasts, where the breast surgeon has removed all your original breast tissue.

They've come a long way in breast cancer surgery & reconstruction. The breast surgeon goes underneath your skin and removes the tissue and the plastic surgeon replaces the tissue with stomach fat. (They professionally stuff your boobs -- kind of like you did with tissue paper when you were a pre-teen. Admit it! You've done it!) So what you end up seeing are your same breasts, but shaped better. In fact, I've taked to many women who like their breasts more after reconstruction compared to their original tattas.

The problem was -- and there's always a problem with me, it seems -- I didn't have much stomach fat. I did, however, have lots of butt fat.

There I sat in Dr. Bill's office, trying to convince him why it was necessary for me to have a "butt transplant" rather than a stomach fat transplant. But, he said it wasn't as effective and assured me the stomach was the way to go.

He did agree that I didn't have much stomach fat. (He also agreed that I had a big butt.) Therefore, I was also going to need implants to fill out my breasts...which, he added, would end up still being smaller than their current size.

I have always had small (I prefer to say "perky") breasts, which I have been fond of. But reducing my size any more would put me in a training bra.

This was always my luck. All I ever wanted was a smaller butt, but, instead, I was getting smaller boobs. And smaller boobs were only going to make my butt look bigger. Why God didn't create "butt cancer" instead of breast cancer is beyond me...

My next appointment was with the ovarian cancer surgeon, whom I had interviewed for an article a few years before. (Did I mention that I was a writer?) Anyway, I wrote a story on Dr. Zen and the next time I see him, he's staring at me with my legs in stirrups. I decided to take note of this situation before I ever did a story on someone again.

The third surgeon was a woman -- thank, God! -- named Dr. Jen, who was highly recommended by several of my girlfriends with "breast concerns." And, fortunately, Dr. Bill, Dr. Zen and Dr. Jen all worked together regularly as a team! Will miracles never cease?!

During this time, I had a scary mammogram in which there was concern that some calcifications near my breast wall were cancerous. That led me to minor surgery to remove the tissue in question using stereotactic mammography (not fun).

During my exams, I also read through the list of potential ovarian cancer symptoms...and saw that I had several -- swelling of fingers, lower back pain, abdominal pain, bloating. Of course, many of the symptoms could be related to hormones, but when you're a cancer survivor, all you think about is cancer, not hormones.

When I discussed this with Dr. Zen, he assured me that I had checked out okay and there was no need to fear. However, my nerves were shot, and I told him that as far as I was concerned, he could yank out my ovaries right then and there with his bare hands.

He looked taken aback. "Well, that's not necessary," he stammered.

After surviving cancer the first time, I've been tested every 3 months over the past 6+ years -- whether it's bloodwork at my oncologist's, or a mammogram, or an MRI, or an exam with my breast surgeon. And every 3 months for 6 years, I've had to wonder after each test...did they find anything? Is it back? I wanted to put an end to the wondering.

With the BRCA surgery of removing breast tissue and my ovaries, my chances of developing cancer again would significantly drop. To be able to have that kind of relief -- and live life without cancer hovering over your head every day (and it does, believe me) -- was motivation enough for me to get on with it.

I signed up for the 3-in-1 surgery as fast as I could. Ant then began preparing.