For Christmas last year I gave myself a new breast to replace the one I lost in my battle with breast cancer. I love my new breast. It is soft, warm and matches my surviving breast. I may love it even more because it took a lot of time and effort to get it. This breast is not silicone. It is made from my own belly fat. It has been delicately crafted and attached to my blood supply. My own heart keeps it warm.
The journey to get this beloved new breast was long and windy. After my chemotherapy treatment ended last year, I had to find two doctors that I liked: one surgeon to remove the remaining cancer fragments and a plastic surgeon to make my body look and feel good again.
What I learned is that plastic surgery is unlike other medical specialties. It is more like commissioning a painter or sculptor than finding a doctor. A good surgeon is distinguished mostly by skill and personality. But plastic surgeons, I found out, are varied in terms of what they are trained to do and how passionate they are.
During a lecture at the Bay Area Cancer Connections, a guest surgeon told us that if one surgeon says you do not have enough body fat to rebuild, ask another one.
In my case, the rebuilding could only take place in stages, after my radiation. The first plastic surgeon I saw was assigned to me through my health plan. She told me that radiation would likely destroy my skin and cause the expander (the first phase of rebuilding) to collapse. She had an 80 percent failure rate in this regard. She also said I did not have enough body fat for building a new breast. This set -off panic and a fierce determination to find a better surgeon.
A fellow mom-friend who is a plastic surgeon gave me much more positive statistics. She assured me that my good health and healthy lifestyle meant that I would probably do fine with an expander and radiation. And while I am slim, she was sure there was enough fat on me somewhere to build a new breast. I just had to find the right plastic surgeon.
My sister supported my quest. She and I traveled to the next closest hospital in my health plan and met the head of the department. He showed us a presentation. He was probably technically skilled but he lacked a component I needed: the ability to connect. My stress was so high; I took an anxiety pill in the middle of his lecture. My time was running out. I needed to have the cancer removed, but I hadn’t found a plastic surgeon I liked.
We forged on to a hospital in San Francisco. There, I finally met a plastic surgeon that could confidently put in an expander and had the skills do the most advanced form of reconstruction down the road. And I liked him.
Surgery and radiation went smoothly. Glorious reconstruction was the next step, except that my family life wouldn’t allow it. My messy divorce got messier. I had to force a sale of the family home and I (thankfully) got full custody of our children. Whenever I thought I could do the surgery, something changed and I had to postpone it. My surgeon stayed in touch with me throughout the year; reassuring me that it was okay to wait. He would be there when things settled down.
I finally settled on a date about a week before Christmas. And as the surgery loomed nearer, I got more excited. Finally, the circumstances were right to do the delicate and time-consuming surgery. My sister took time off work and my friends organized aftercare. My girlfriend moved in for one night with the kids until school was out and my former husband could take them.
Having maneuvered a contentious divorce and cancer, I think of myself as pretty badass now. But I was nervous the morning of surgery. My surgeon arrived with his artist bag and pulled out his pens. He skillfully painted a design on my body. The artistic engineering feat had begun.
For the next eight hours, I was asleep and I can only tell you in simple terms what I think they did. They opened up my stomach to retrieve some extra belly fat, muscle and a few strong veins and arteries. They sewed up my belly and then, with a surgical microscope, a needle and thread, and lots of skill, they sewed the belly stuff—fat veins and arties—onto my chest and into a beautiful living breast.
I woke up with a flat belly, a gorgeous breast and lots of tubes. I had to stay in the hospital for 5 days to make sure the new blood supply to my breast was working. I have to take it easy for quite a while. And that is okay, because I love my new soft breast.