By Becky Wiese
Being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28 was not on Katie’s radar. In fact, in May of 2011, she and her husband were facing questions caused by infertility when Katie found a lump in her right breast.
A visit to her obstetrician resulted in a sonogram that showed no abnormalities.
But a lump is a lump, and while she didn’t know exactly what it was, “I knew I didn’t want it to be there,” says Katie. She decided to go to a general surgeon who did a wedge biopsy of the golf ball size mass. The results were shocking, as she was immediately diagnosed with breast cancer.
Even more shocking was the randomness of her disease. Although her paternal grandmother had breast cancer which eventually took her life, Katie feels that she would have had a better outcome if she had been more proactive with monthly breast exams and had not waited so long to start cancer treatments. Otherwise, Katie had no other direct female relatives with breast cancer. She was young and healthy. She simply didn’t fit the profile for a breast cancer patient.
Now Katie encourages all women, regardless of age, to be their own advocate. “Know your own body—if something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. My test results (from the sonogram) didn’t show anything, but I felt like something wasn’t normal, so I pushed for more. I’m so glad I did that.”
In rapid succession of her diagnosis, Katie had an oncologist who performed several tests to determine how much, if at all, her cancer had spread. The results showed she was Stage IIIB, an advanced stage which included lymph nodes. By the end of June, she had started six months of chemotherapy prior to surgery. After finishing chemo, she underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction in January 2012.
“I knew I didn’t want to go through this again, and I wanted to be the same on both sides, so the double mastectomy decision was proactive,” Katie explains. She had time to think about the surgery and reconstruction options while she was undergoing chemo and had met with the general and plastic surgeons to decide what she wanted to do. “I was only 28 years old, so I knew I wanted to have something [in the way of reconstruction]. In the end, I went with my gut,” based on the information from the surgeons.
During her surgery, the surgeon inserted silicone implants. She chose not to use expanders, which would have been temporary until she finished with post-surgery radiation treatment. In hindsight, Katie says she might have done that differently, as the implant in her right breast was damaged from the radiation.
Before she could move forward with more reconstruction surgery, however, she was faced with even more trauma. Her husband, Ryan, passed away unexpectedly. At that point, she decided she wasn’t ready to make any decisions about more surgeries. “I needed to let things settle and let my body rest, both due to the chemo/surgery/radiation as well as the grieving process,” she says.
Finally, in May 2013, Katie underwent a latissimus dorsi flap reconstructive surgery during which her plastic surgeon took an oval flap consisting of muscle along with skin, fat, and blood vessels from her upper back and put it in the front where she had sustained damage from the radiation treatments. Another implant was added to help complete the contouring.
Katie has undergone numerous additional surgeries for “fine tuning” the reconstruction. “We’ve done some fat grafting to fill in spots where the implants can’t reach,” she explains. These surgeries are not as invasive as the mastectomies and original reconstructive surgeries—“the incisions are smaller and the recovery time is much shorter.”
Not all doctors do these procedures and not all patients choose to have it done. But for Katie, the decision was based on her age and the fact that she had decided from the beginning that she wanted to look and feel as “normal” as she could.
“You know it’s not you—the original you,” she explains. “I feel like I’m still getting used to it—it won’t feel like it did before, but eventually, it’ll feel like the new me.”