Just slightly over 12 years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Having just turned 40, and then the mother of three children ages four, seven and 10, it would be an understatement to say this diagnosis rocked my world. At the time, I knew just a handful of women my age with breast cancer. Today, those numbers are swelling. And many, gripped with fear about the breast cancer returning, and eager to get it out of their body for good, are turning to radical treatment that, in many cases, won’t alter their survival rates. In an article I wrote for Glamour, I had the opportunity to delve into the reasons why many young women are opting for unilateral and bilateral mastectomies, removing their entire breast, when a less invasive lumpectomy followed by radiation would be just as effective. By speaking with women who chose this course and those who decided to get lumpectomies, I was able to better understand the factors motivating this very difficult, personal decision. In the end, every woman has to decide what’s best for her. There’s no doubt about it. Getting a breast cancer diagnosis is scary. But as we kick off breast cancer awareness month, I hope women will take the time to research the extensive studies and research on the most viable treatment options. I hope they’ll get a second opinion and connect with other breast cancer survivors to hear what worked for them, and what didn’t, so they’ll know all their possible options before heading into surgery. In tackling this disease, education is often the best weapon.
Angelina Jolie’s disclosure that she underwent surgery for a preventive double mastectomy after learning she is predisposed to breast cancer set off a firestorm of discussion, as it often does, when celebrities become spokespeople for certain types of diseases or health care decisions. I’m curious, however, whether it will lead to an onslaught of women choosing to have mastectomies who may not face the same type of risks that she, a carrier of the breast cancer gene, had. If more young women choose to get rid of their breasts, they’ll be left with a flat surface where two large, fleshy organs once were. I have first-hand knowledge of this, since, 11 years ago, I was one of the growing number of young women diagnosed with DCIS, an early stage breast cancer, which Peggy Orenstein described so eloquently in a recent New York Times Magazine piece. I, like many with DCIS, chose to have a mastectomy. There’s no way to sugar coat the remains of an amputated breast. There’s a giant scar over a flat surface. For me, the choice to have breast reconstruction, and not have to face the ugly reminder of my mastectomy, was a no brainer. There’s been little discussion, by either Jolie or others in the public eye, of what’s involved, should a person decide to undergo breast reconstruction. Jolie made passing mention to implants she had at the time of her mastectomy, but revealed little about that particular procedure and what it entails. Though I’m sure advancements have been made over the past 10 years, reconstructive surgery is no picnic. I long to write a piece that will tell the many women likely to undergo breast reconstruction just what’s involved, so they can make just an informed decision about that, as they hopefully did about getting their mastectomy.