Friend, contributing writer and breast cancer survivor of a different kind – Laurel shares her unique story. Special circumstances pushed her to make an aggressive preventative care decision – an action that ultimately saved her life!
In recognition of October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month
It’s hard to believe, at the ripe old age of 30 I made the decision to have both my breasts removed. Whenever I tell my story, particularly to women, they are usually shocked and astonished that I made this decision voluntarily. I frequently hear words like “devastating” associated with their reactions, but for me there was nothing devastating about it.
I believed then and still believe today that I was saving my life. I didn’t think twice when I made the decision. The kicker? I didn’t have breast cancer.
I began having problems with my breasts after difficulties breastfeeding my second child. I became engorged, which was an excruciatingly painful experience that lead to severe fibrocystic breast disease. Engorgement occurs when the mammary glands produce excessive milk at a rapid rate. The breasts become inflamed, feverish, and hard as a rock. I suffered with this for several days and after things finally settled down, my breasts looked and felt like I had filled them with small rocks.
Laurel receives her Bachelor's degree in 2011
After three years of not wanting to look at myself in the mirror, but more important, living with constant pain, I brought the subject up with my doctor. I was only 29 at the time, which is considered too early for a mammogram, but after my doctor felt my lumpy disfigured breasts she recommended I get the test to make sure something serious wasn’t lurking beneath. Squeezing a bag of rocks in a mammogram machine doesn’t work so well. Not only did I want to cause bodily harm to the technician but it became apparent that an accurate picture was not going to be possible.
After the failed mammogram, an ultrasound was performed which showed several masses of various sizes and undeterminable content. I was told my best option was to have a few biopsies done with the hope that the results would be indicative of all of my “mystery” masses. Even as this suggestion was presented to me I could tell the doctors were feeling the same doubt I had about the accuracy of random biopsies. I responded with, “why don’t we just remove everything?” They told me it would be nearly impossible to go in and remove every mass they found. I would probably have nothing left. So I clarified my suggestion – I wanted them to remove my breasts entirely.
At first, my suggestion was met with silent, blank stares. Then suddenly a barrage of comments and opinions were thrown at me including reminders of my young age, mastectomy is for cancer patients only, I would be scarred for life, blah blah blah. Not to negate the educated and experienced advice of medical professionals, but I had some key” intel” that I had not shared with them.
I waited until they were done with their tirade and then informed them that my family history was saturated with cancer. I explained that my maternal grandmother had four sisters and all five of them died of some sort of cancer. Coincidentally, my mother also came from a family of five girls who were all still alive but already two of them had fought cancer (my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage cervical cancer ten years later).
My grandmother had cancer for as long as I knew her. She died when I was nine and I only remember her being ill. My childhood instilled such a grandiose fear of the big “C” in me that as a young adult, I obsessed about it constantly. Although every ache and pain brought that dreaded word to mind, I never acted on it. Until now. I decided to eliminate my problem breasts before they had the chance to eliminate me.
After numerous arguments and lengthy discussions with my doctors, my family, and my insurance company, I finally convinced everyone that the best option for me would be to remove my breasts. I agreed with the doctors that it was only necessary to remove only the subcutaneous tissue (under the skin) and keep everything else.
The procedure took several hours and the recovery was brutal. After the surgery, when I was awake and alert enough to comprehend my surgeon’s words, he told me he had removed an extreme amount of fibrocystic tissue from my breasts and even quite a bit that had wrapped all the way around my back. Several biopsies showed that this tissue was full of pre-cancerous tissue. I can still hear him telling me that without the surgery, my chances of getting life-threatening breast cancer were 99%.
I had my double mastectomies when I was 30 years old. I have had three reconstructive surgeries over the past 18 years and although my breasts look great under clothes, in the flesh they are full of scars, a little uneven, and have some ripples and bumps that aren’t very appealing. This doesn’t bother me (or my husband of 20 years) one bit.
I am fully convinced that had I not made the decision I did, I wouldn’t be here right now and who cares about nice boobs when you’re dead? I also had a (somewhat) elective hysterectomy seven years later after too many abnormal pap smears. I have no regrets about the aggressive, preventative decisions I’ve made regarding my health. The peace of mind I now have is well worth the pain, time, and money involved with having surgery.
I have shared my story with my three children now that they are older. Not that I want any of them to go have their body parts removed, but I want them to know they can make tough decisions about their medical health if and when the time comes. I also encourage them to get sufficient preventive care and cancer screenings earlier than the recommended ages. Like me, I want them to know their bodies, their family history, and their rights as a patient.
Whenever I am questioned by my children or anyone else for that matter, I always say it is much easier to prevent cancer than fight it.