Three Women Share Their Mastectomy Stories

In "Double Mastectomies: What Price Peace of Mind?", Ginny Graves reported that a growing number of women are choosing this surgery in hopes of lowering their breast cancer risk. Here, three women share why they chose this option

As told to Shelley Levitt
Photograph: Chad Hagen

“I had my breasts removed because my risk factors were high”

Elizabeth Thompson, MD, 46, Mount Kisco, New York

I was in medical school when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After my internship, I decided to become a radiation oncologist. I wanted to help women like my mother and also like my grandmother and great-grandmother, who had both survived breast cancer.

In 2004, after my fourth child was born, I saw a genetic counselor. It turned out I don’t have the BRCA mutation that puts people at high risk for cancer. Still, when my risks were factored into a computer model, the genetic counselor thought my odds of getting breast cancer were 40 to 50 percent.

That was too high for me. I’m not a gambler. And I’m a little bit of a coward. I felt as if I had a time bomb ticking inside me. I didn’t want to undergo chemotherapy if breast cancer was found years later. What’s more, I was losing too much of my life to screenings, follow-ups and worry. I had small breasts to begin with, and so much tissue was depleted by biopsies, there wasn’t much left.

On May 4, 2006, I had prophylactic mastectomies with direct-to-implant, one-step reconstruction, which means new breasts are constructed during the same surgical session. The first week of recovery wasn’t fun; the drains in my breasts were incredibly painful. This experience prompted me to design a line of postmastectomy bras and recovery kits to make the postsurgical period easier for women (bfflco.com). Yet 12 days after the mastectomy, I did my normal five-mile run.

My breasts look great. My only cosmetic gripe is that they’re a C cup, which is bigger than I would have liked—I’m not used to having my breasts enter a room before I do. My husband would probably say they look nice, but I have no sensation, and from a sexual perspective that takes getting used to.

"I could not live with the worry that my stage-0 cancer would recur"

Jessica Barlow, 45, Scarsdale, New York

Some people may find it surprising that I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is sometimes categorized as a stage-0 cancer. DCIS isn’t an invasive cancer; it involves abnormal cells that have not spread beyond the milk ducts. 

Last year, after my mammogram showed suspicious findings in my right breast, I went through tests that revealed I had DCIS. After a biopsy, I developed a painful hematoma, a pocket of blood that collected in my breast. But that pain was nothing compared with the psychological anguish I was going through while thinking about my future.

If I chose a lumpectomy and radiation, I might need to have mammograms every six months, but I couldn’t imagine going through this worry twice a year. My other choices were a single or double mastectomy followed by reconstruction. My survival odds were 99 percent with whatever treatment I chose.

The rest of my life factored into my decision. I have three kids and a big job, as the executive director of communications for LVMH fragrance brands. The game changer came when I realized that if I chose lumpectomy and radiation and later on the breast cancer recurred and I needed a mastectomy, the cosmetic results of reconstruction wouldn’t be nearly as good. Radiated skin is much more difficult to work with, so doctors often have to take tissue from other parts of the body. 

Once I decided on a mastectomy, choosing to have both breasts removed was easy; I wasn’t going to go through major surgery and still worry at the end of the day.

Six weeks after my surgery, I looked and felt fantastic and was hiking with my husband in Telluride, Colorado.

“I was battling an aggressive cancer”

Cassandra Levine, 57, Baltimore

The cancerous nodule was small, about the size of an M&M, the doctor said—not a peanut M&M but a chocolate one. It was embedded deep in the breast duct, which was why I’d never felt it and why the technician who did the follow-up mammogram had needed to press so hard, and painfully, on my left breast to get a clear image.

First published in the February 2014 issue

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