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Robert Tornambe, M.D. Headshot

My Most Memorable Breast Cancer Patient

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As a plastic surgeon, it is my job to reconstruct the breast if a mastectomy is needed for cancer treatment. It is now considered a necessary part of the treatment for breast cancer for obvious reasons. Techniques have improved greatly, and studies show that post mastectomy breast reconstruction boosts the patient psychologically, allowing her to move on with her life.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of treating hundreds of women with breast cancer, and many have survived and thrived and beat this horrid disease. Unfortunately, far too many did not. In either case, these have been extraordinary women, courageous and dignified throughout their ordeal. The same tenacious thread seems to be woven through these people, and while they all possess many similar remarkable traits, they are also individuals with varied personalities.

I can rattle off anecdotes about so many wonderful and memorable breast cancer patients, but one in particular still haunts me because of the circumstances of her illness. In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and to honor her, I would like to share her story.

For the sake of privacy, I will call her Gloria, not her real name. It was nearly two decades ago, and I was in practice for only a couple of years. I worked in a hospital clinic that advocated the team approach for breast cancer treatment. Part of the team consisted of the general surgeon, who performs the mastectomy, and the plastic surgeon, who performs the reconstruction. They work in harmony to remove the diseased breast and start the reconstruction during the same operation. Many times, I would see patients right after they were given their cancer diagnosis, to plan their reconstruction. The reasoning was to start the reconstructive process as soon as possible, as it sometimes took two or three stages or operations.

I met Gloria right after she received the bad news; she had breast cancer and needed a mastectomy. I walked into the exam room and encountered a stunning woman in her 30s with flowing auburn hair. She was sobbing quietly and kept repeating the same question over and over: Who is going to care for my little girl? Gloria was a single mom with a 5-year-old daughter and no immediate family. She never uttered a word about her personal predicament or how this diagnosis would affect her and her body. Gloria's daughter was the center of her universe, and she cared not for herself, only her little girl.

She came from the Midwest, and was alone. She was a talented singer struggling in New York City, hoping to get her break. Gloria supplemented her income as many striving performers do in this city: as a waitress.

I tried to console Gloria by telling her that she would be taking care of her daughter because she was going to beat this thing and we were going to help her. I wished to give her hope and try to change her focus to her treatment and options for reconstruction. We agreed that the operation called the TRAM flap would be her best option, because it utilized abdominal tissue to be molded into a new breast.

Her reconstruction went well, and like many of my breast reconstruction patients was happy not to have to see me again, meaning they resumed their normal lives.

Fast forward a few years. I was in the hospital making rounds, walking toward the elevator, when I heard a faint voice calling my name. It was Gloria, although it took me a few seconds to recognize her. The cancer had returned; she barely weighed 90 pounds and was totally bald. Her gorgeous auburn hair had fallen out from chemotherapy and she was a shadow of her former, energetic self.

Gloria died several days later. Thankfully, a dear girlfriend adopted Gloria's daughter. I hate this disease because of what it did to Gloria and too many women worldwide. Until a cure is found, please learn and perform breast self-exams religiously and get a mammogram as prescribed by your doctor.

Breast cancer can be curable when caught early! Do it for yourself, your loved ones... do it for Gloria!

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