Breast Cancer from a Patient’s Perspective
Case #1 (Article by Leslie Green from www.TrustLifeToday.com)
Between my older son and I, we have almost every ~ologist, as he says, that you can imagine.
Endocrinologist, nephrologist, radiologist, neurologist, pediatric ophthalmologist, dermatologist, gynecologist, audiologist, and now, an oncologist. Then there are the non-ologists: ENT, geneticist, breast surgeon, and a few others I’ve probably forgotten, but these are the regulars.
Although I never dreamed we’d have the need for a pediatric endocrinologist (to monitor a completely non-functioning thyroid), two nephrologists (kidney doctors), a geneticist (to tie this lovely mess together for me), or many of the other doctors, I must say, I really never dreamed I’d need a plastic surgeon.
And, I’m embarrassed to say, I never knew how much I could appreciate the profession.
In college I had a close friend who wanted to become a doctor. Over the years I’d watch his choices in schools, in fellowships, in specialties, always curious to see where he would land. And after many years of basically trying it all, he chose plastics.
Plastics?, I thought. Cool, and I do mean cool choice, but why? He’s brilliant! I didn’t get it.
See, I didn’t understand the depth of the profession. I thought it was just about looks – – the cosmetic stuff. And although I certainly knew there was a reconstructive piece to plastic surgery, I suppose I really didn’t give it much thought.
To be clear, let me touch on something I just said: “I thought it [plastic surgery] was just about looks….” First of all, I know there’s no “just” about anything having to do with looks. Think about how much time we spend daily showering, shaving, make-uping, fixing our hair, nails. Our total grooming time is substantial. There’s no such thing as “JUST” when it comes to looks. I do understand that. Yet still, I never gave much credence to the plastic surgery profession.
Until I met Dr. Antonetti.
When I first met Dr. Antonetti, the man who would be performing my reconstruction, it didn’t occur to me to interview him first – – that’s what little attention I gave to the whole thing.
I had done some serious homework on choosing my breast surgeon. After our first few meetings, she leaned over her desk, handing me a list of names saying, “I only work with three plastic surgeons. Here are their names. After you’ve interviewed each, you can let me know which you choose.”
Interview more doctors?? No. The process to choose her had been arduous enough.
Without glancing at the list, I handed it back and said, “You know my personality. You choose the one you feel is right for me.”
Yes, it was an act of Trust. It was my way of saying to her, “We’re a team. I trust your judgement to do what’s best for me.” And if I’m really honest, there was another element at play. It was indicative of my dismissive thoughts on the role of the plastic surgeon. I mean, really, if she only works with three, they all have to be good at what they do, right? Does it really matter who she chooses? Will it really make a difference?
I’m sure the other two would have been just fine. Each would have performed brilliantly with a scalpel in his hand. But now I understand something more. The way we look at ourselves and truly SEE ourselves is hugely important on an emotional and psychological level. My plastic surgeon understands this. And in his gentle, understated way, he taught this to me.
He has referred to me as a Rock Star in my healing. And although my belief system is at the core of remaining positive throughout this whole cancer chapter, he, Dr. Antonetti, has been my medical anchor. He reminds me every week that my healing is going fabulously. He monitors my physical well being, as well as my emotional. And every step of the way, whenever I’ve had doubts, he has been the ever patient soul to guide me through it.
How quickly we make up our minds about people, professions. How humbling to find out we were wrong. It’s through the wrong, that I’m able to grow. Being right all the time may feel good for a moment, but those waters will soon become stale, stagnant.
Dr. Antonetti, you tied this whole experience together for me. You were the one who prescribed all of my medications, monitored me on them, told me when I could drive, when I could exercise, walk the dog, do yoga. You changed all of my dressings yourself, each and every time. And you taught me how I could see myself differently. What an incredible lesson that I will be forever grateful for. Thank you.
After receiving a cancer diagnosis, I went from not thinking too much about plastic surgery, to understanding that it’s what grounded my entire experience, what grounded me; it was eye opening.
Yep. Being wrong ain’t always bad.
Imagine being a 36 year old single parent with a seven year old son on Christmas Day and worried whether or not you will see another Christmas. I was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer and while awaiting BRCA genetic test results the second week of December, the surgeon approached me about a mastectomy. I had the option to receive breast reconstruction or live without my breast. After this visit, the surgeon scheduled an appointment with plastic surgeon, Dr. John Antonetti for the initial consultation.
Before the consultation, I searched the internet for pertinent information regarding the reconstructive procedures. Upon arrival to Dr. Antonetti’s office, I was prepared to ask many questions. He discussed options in reconstruction, responded to my questions, and allowed me to view pictures of his patients’ reconstructive procedures. The appointment was an overwhelming feeling of relief as many questions were answered and my fears relieved.
In February I had a bilateral mastectomy as a result of the BRCA 2 gene that was identified after testing. Dr. Antonetti placed breast tissue expanders after bilateral mastectomy. Over the following three months Dr. Antonetti injected saline water into the tissue expander increasing my breast volume and skin.
After six months and six cycles of chemotherapy I was ready for exchange of the tissue expanders and placement of breast implants in July. Before the second stage of reconstruction we discussed the variety and shapes of implants for clarification of what was best suited for my body. Dr. Antonetti also provided information on the nipple reconstruction and areola tattooing.
By November, eleven months after diagnosis, I have a brand new attitude, a renewal in spirit, and a feeling of confidence. Thanks to my family, friends, breast surgeon, and my plastic surgeon, Dr. John Antonetti, and his staff.
I am a breast cancer survivor. I had a double mastectomy or as some call it a bilateral mastectomy. Before I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Cocco, I encountered several plastic surgeons that told me I had to lose 50 to 60 pounds before I could get breast reconstruction with implants. Being a full figure woman all of my life, that was a devastating blow. Having lost my breast and repeatedly being told I was too overweight was enough to make a woman go into hiding. With sheer determination and strong family support, I continued my search.
My research lead me to Dr. Jennyfer Cocco. Not only was she optimistic, she listened and didn’t judge me based on my size. As I got to know my new doctor I saw what was previously missing, compassion and understanding.
The opportunity of having her as my surgeon brought me great joy. She presented old school knowledge with new school techniques that assured me that I could get my womanhood back. Not once did she mention my weight, in my opinion I like my size, and I say so myself. Anyway, after a few visits and discussions on the procedure that she thought was best for me, we moved forward with the surgery. I was informed of the procedure she would be using and we discussed the risk and benefits of the surgery.
One week after the surgery, an incident happened about 5 p.m. that caused me to lose a stitch and fluid from the breast. Dr. Cocco was on her way to the airport to a missionary assignment when I called. She directed me to go straight to her office. Others might have said go to the emergency room. Wow, could not get any better than that. Having met her there along with Dr. Antonetti, they took care of the minor malfunction that I created. Unfortunately, she missed her flight due to me.
I am pleased to say that I feel more like a woman because Dr. Cocco saw a woman in front of her. She saw the woman first, and then created an answer to the issue at hand.
The first time a doctor said, “It looks like breast cancer,” it seemed like I was suddenly careening down a dark tunnel on some surreal amusement park roller coaster where dreadful things jump out at you. I didn’t like feeling like I was on some runaway train, so I decided I needed to take back control of my life, and I started by doing research.
I used the internet to learn everything I could about breast cancer, treatments, and my options for reconstruction. I learned that breast cancer is almost never fatal when it is identified early. I learned that with more than one area of cancer I would need a mastectomy. Most importantly, I learned about DIEP reconstructive breast surgery. With DIEP they remove excess fat and skin from the abdomen and use it to create warm, soft, natural looking breasts.
I did consider other types of reconstruction. I read about implant reconstruction and how TRAM procedures sacrificed stomach muscles to reconstruct the breast, and I knew these options weren’t for me. Although DIEP surgery is lengthy and no one in my area was trained to do this type of micro surgery I believed it was the best possible alternative for me.
I found there were several plastic surgeons doing DIEP surgery in Dallas where my sister lived, so I selected a Dallas breast surgeon for the mastectomy and asked them to recommend a reconstructive surgeon, Dr. John Antonetti and Dr. Cocco were on the list, and I have been pleased not only with the aesthetic outcome of my surgery but also with the personal care I received throughout the process.
When I called their office I had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Cocco. She put me at ease and made me feel like I was talking to an old friend. I was reassured to learn that I would have not one, but two reconstructive surgeons in the operating room, one with the male perspective on perfection in beauty and one with feminine sensibilities.
We had two pre-operative meetings so I had ample opportunity to ask questions and let Dr. Antonetti know what my personal preferences were. He really listened to me. Dr Antonetti is intensely dedicated to the art of his work. He is very professional but totally relatable to the patient. Once, when I apologized for having the hospital nurses wake him to get an order for an over-the-counter medication I wanted, he amiably said, “That’s okay, we want you to be comfortable.” Everyone at Clinique Dallas was encouraging and upbeat and the Hospital nurses were the best I have encountered anywhere.
I was pleasantly surprised by how little pain I had from the bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. The hardest thing was being patient during the recovery, especially around week 3 when the breast drains are out and you feel pretty normal, until you try to do too much. This is a time when a woman must resign herself to resting and doing her assigned walking and stretching exercises.
Reflecting on my journey, I do not feel like a cancer survivor, I feel like a cancer champion. The most important things I did right were focusing on the positive aspects of reconstruction instead of the negative aspects of cancer, thoroughly researching surgeons and types of reconstruction, putting effort into building a support team of friends and family, and taking all my fears to God. Now I can look down at my breasts and stomach and feel good about my body, and I can also feel good that my friends, family, physicians, and God were with me when I needed them most.