Barbara's Breast Reconstruction
Everyone knows life comes with both ups and downs, but Barbara knows it better than most people. On the positive side, she's had the satisfaction of running a highly-successful advertising agency in the Queensbury/Glens Falls/Saratoga Springs area for many years. In fact, she took her media career to the limit as she developed her own television and radio programs and served the advertising needs of hundreds of clients. Today, even though she's semi-retired, she still produces and stars in ads for restaurants, car dealers, retail shops and other businesses. She's recognized everywhere she goes.
But one of the challenges of Barbara's adult life hasn't been so welcome—a long term battle with breast tumors. Over the course of 28 years she had 26 large tumors, one cancerous, and multiple surgeries to remove them. Now, at the age of 65, she is cancer-free, thanks to a double mastectomy. As part of her mastectomy, she chose breast reconstruction in Glens Falls.
A Difficult Journey
About thirty years ago, Barbara's experience with her fibrocystic breast condition began. Though the condition is relatively common among women, Barbara's extreme case is not. Her fibrous breasts began to develop tumors that grew at an alarming rate, causing both pain and anxiety. "Sometimes I would discover one and then find that a week to ten days later it had grown tremendously and needed to come out. Many times I had multiple tumors. Sometimes I had them in one breast, sometimes in both. Some grew to be the size of lemons," Barbara remembers. Although they were benign until two years ago, the tumors, which Barbara characterizes as "estrogen-driven," were removed to prevent them from growing larger and causing her even more discomfort.
Finally, in 1995, Barbara had surgery to remove nine tumors. Her doctor expected to find five tumors in one breast; he found seven. In the other breast there were two. Of the total of nine tumors removed that day, Barbara says, "The smallest was the size of a golf ball."
Faced with this ongoing battle, and the possibility that a tumor would eventually be diagnosed as cancerous, many women would choose to have a mastectomy. Barbara says she wasn't ready to give up on her breasts yet. Her doctor put her on anti-cancer medication, which in hindsight Barbara believes she stayed on too long. She had a few cysts over the next several years. They grew and shrank but did not develop into tumors. Then came the news she had been hoping to avoid: Barbara had a new tumor and it was cancerous.
Again, there was good news mixed in with the bad for Barbara. Because the cancer developed within a milk duct, it was confined and had grown slowly. Although her oncologist recommended a mastectomy—a double mastectomy for prevention's sake—Barbara still wanted to keep her breasts. She had a lumpectomy and radiation therapy in 2005.
The final blow came in 2006 when Barbara discovered more tumors. This time there were two in the breast that had had the lumpectomy and four in the other breast. Her doctor believed, but couldn't confirm, that one was cancerous. Barbara says, "At that point I realized I was out of time. Cancer or not, I felt my time had run out." She was ready to sacrifice her breasts for the chance to live a longer life. She decided to have both breasts removed, no matter what the biopsy of her latest lumps showed.
The Next Chapter
As it turns out, none of the six new tumors was cancerous. Still, Barbara believes the decision to have a double mastectomy was right for her. She was through living her life as a vigil, looking for lumps every day. She wanted a second chance.
At first, she did not want to have breast reconstruction after her mastectomy. "I had been through so much," she says, "I just didn't want to go through any more." Her oncologist and mastectomy surgeon gave her a different perspective. "They said, 'Barbara, you're a proud woman. You always look so good, we're afraid what your mental state will be if you go with prostheses. You owe it to yourself to at least talk with a reconstructive surgeon.'"
Barbara learned that performing the reconstruction immediately after the mastectomy would be easier than doing it later. "The more I understood, the more I felt that reconstruction might be the right choice for me." As she thought about reconstruction she knew she could count on her husband to support her all the way. "I went into it thinking I had just had enough," Barbara says, "then I realized I'm a very strong woman. I knew I could do it."
The Reconstruction Process
Barbara's breast reconstruction was begun immediately after her mastectomy surgeon removed her breasts. Tissue expanders were placed in Barbara's chest and filled about half full with saline solution. Three months after surgery, as the healing process continued, more saline solution was added through a port in the expanders. Three months later, the expanders were replaced with permanent saline implants. Scarring was minimized by using the same incision sites that were used for her mastectomy. Barbara is exactly the same size she was before surgery, and she can even go without a bra and still look good.
Though the breast reconstruction process is not what Barbara would call 'easy,' she is grateful she made the decision to combine reconstruction and mastectomy. "Not for one day did I feel I was without breasts," she relates. Barbara believes that when a woman has a mastectomy, coming home from the hospital with new breasts already in process can be a big boost.
A New Life Now
Now that both her natural breasts are gone, Barbara says she has a 95% chance of remaining cancer free. "I'm still watchful; I know what to look for," she notes, "but it's not a vigil any more. I have a new life now."
Looking back Barbara remembers that she didn't want others to know what she was going through with the dozens of tumors and the ultimate breast cancer diagnosis. "I'm a positive person," she says. "Dwelling on it just makes it worse." Being in the limelight influenced how she felt at the time. "I didn't want the town talking about it; I didn't want people to feel sorry for me."
Barbara feels it's time to tell her story now. "I want to share what happened to me with any woman who will allow me to tell her," she says. "Maybe they'll say, 'That's the kind of strength I want to have.'"