First of all, I must thank Angelina Jolie for making the decision to share the story of her bilateral mastectomy with the world. As one of the most beautiful and desirable women on the planet, she did not have to go public. By doing that, she has opened a very important dialogue with far-reaching effects.
I survived Stage III breast cancer at the age of 46, but then developed infection after infection while trying to rebuild my breasts. I underwent 15 reconstructive surgeries (after the traditional chemo, a bilateral mastectomy and radiation) that finally involved having four liposuction (fat injection) procedures over the course of a year that actually regenerated the fat and skin damaged by the radiation. All of that eventually enabled my body to hold an implant. I now am able to proudly present two almost-perfectly matching breasts when appropriate. I am no longer self- conscious; except when I'm naked. But, put a little dress on me and I strut around like a proud peacock.
I was not a good candidate for the "Brava" technique, nor was my doctor able to use the procedure of fat injections to build my breasts from scratch because my skin had been so damaged. I was somewhat of a problem.
So if you are considering taking the plunge and undergoing breast reconstruction surgery, here are some things to keep in mind.
1. The decision to have breast cancer reconstruction is yours and yours alone. For many women, reconstruction is something that they choose not to do. For me, not undergoing reconstruction was not an option. I've spoken to women on both sides of the issue and judge no one for their choice. I expect the same. There are also those who have been told that reconstruction was not an option for them physically. To those women I would say that might not necessarily be the case anymore. There is very little information out there available to women such as myself. Each day, new techniques are being developed.
2. Not everyone has a problem. Many women have standard reconstructive procedures every day and go home very happy with their results. Yay for them! Unfortunately, there are also many women who have had extreme issues and are forced to live with the scars that cancer has left behind leaving them feeling ugly, ashamed, angry and afraid to talk about it. After all, we should be grateful just to be alive, right?
3. Become your own advocate by choosing not only a qualified, but humble and tenacious plastic surgeon. Don't be afraid to tell your doctor that you are not happy with the results. If he or she can't take it, find another doctor. My plastic surgeon did the necessary research he needed to do and never gave up on me. He calls me the "Poster Child for Reconstruction," and he uses my case as a teaching tool for others.
4. Decide how far you are willing to go to get the results you want. Remember... no matter what anyone says, it's ultimately how you feel about yourself when you jump out of bed in the morning and get dressed. Yes, it's OK for it to be all about you!
5. If your insurance company denies a surgery, fight them. Again, I had 15 surgeries over the course of 4.5 years and my HMO paid for every single one (many of them experimental). We kept waiting for the denial letter that never came. Yes, breast cancer reconstruction is supposed to be covered through your insurance company. The questions are: How many surgeries will they cover? Who gets to decide how many and/or which procedures they will cover? Is there a dollar limit? Each state has its own health insurance regulations; therefore, I cannot answer any one of those questions.
7. Exercise. I cannot emphasize the importance of this. Start off slowly and build. Do something every day. Your body will get stronger and stronger, as will your determination and self-esteem. Endorphins are very good for you. I'm an off and on runner as well as a lifelong up and down dieter with weight issues, yet my first race (and I say race lightly) was a half-marathon. That's 13.1 miles. After crossing the finish line in 3 hours and 5 minutes, I felt like I could do anything, and still do! I now run for my friends and loved ones who cannot. Commit! I just signed up for a 26.2 in January 2014. The point is that I have committed, so I will work hard towards fulfilling that commitment. Do it. Move.
8. Laugh! Laugh as much as you can. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at all of the funny things people put on Facebook, YouTube, etc. Watch the late night comedians. Laugh until you want to pee your pants. Buy Depends if you need to. No, I am not a spokesperson for Depends undergarments. I'm just hoping that you might laugh enough to need them. Not kidding. Laugh!
9. Never, ever give up!
About the author: Lisa Masters is currently living cancer-free in Orlando, Florida, with her son. Working as a real estate agent, she continues to share her story and offer hope to others because she believes too many survivors live with their scars in silence. She is currently working to establish a foundation to raise awareness regarding the available breast reconstructive techniques and to raise money to help those who cannot afford the medical expenses required to complete their reconstruction. For more information about Lisa and her cause, visit www.build-a-boob.com.