I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. First, I want to say that my mother had a mastectomy of her left breast when she was about 47 years old. I, therefore, started having mammograms when I was 30, and I have had them every single year since including 2007, the year before I was diagnosed. It’s an interesting story of how the diagnosis came about…
My father, who was 95 years old at the time, had to be taken to the hospital when he became quite ill with pneumonia. When he was in the ER, I also was coughing and thought I had pneumonia, too. My internist approved doing an Xray and the results were shocking. I didn’t have pneumonia, they told me. They said I had two rather large spots on my lungs.
As I mentioned, I had had a mammogram just months before, also a colonoscopy, with negative results. Since I had lung X-rays previously, if the cancer was this large, it meant I must have had cancer somewhere else in my body. So, they sent me to a lung specialist. He looked at the Xray and ordered more tests. I had developed walking pneumonia previously, and this doctor determined it was scar tissue— “Nothing more than that,” he said. “But I think you should have another mammogram because things can pop up.”
So, I had another mammogram—my second in a period of less than a year—and was shocked to be told there were some spots and that I needed to have a biopsy. That biopsy showed that spot was cancerous. After that, they ordered an MRI. This was something that, 14 years ago, they were just starting to do on the breast. I was told it would take two weeks before they could schedule an appointment for an MRI and when I asked why, I learned the hospital was trying to get my insurance company to pay for it, which was $3,500 at the time.”
“I don’t care!” I spoke. “I’ll pay for it myself. I want to know what’s going on!”
The results of the MRI revealed that three of the four quadrants of my breast looked like cancer cells. Another biopsy was performed on all three spots, and the diagnosis was confirmed that all three were malignant. I was scheduled for surgery. I had spoken to several experts in the field who suggested that I have both breasts removed at the same time for several reasons. One important reason for me was that frequently the other breast may get a “mirrored cancer” and would eventually need to have it removed, as well. So, I decided to have a double mastectomy.
I found out that Johns Hopkins was doing “nipple-sparing,” a procedure that preserves your nipple with a good chance that feeling will come back eventually. I was large-breasted, and I decided I didn’t want to have expanders. However, when it came to the implants, they did not fill the breast pockets enough, so I additionally had to have fat injections to fill the space.
At first, I didn’t see any difference, but eventually, the implants took on a different shape, and I had to have surgery again. This time, I went to Sloan Kettering. They changed the implants, but again I was told I would need supplemental fat injections, because the surgeon could not get a large enough implant to fill the pocket because I had never had expanders. Then I went to see a doctor in Boston, who put 400cc of my own fat that he had removed in each breast. The surgery took more than five hours. My brother, who was in the waiting room, was panicking because it was taking so long.
After six or seven months, the fat that was injected was being absorbed back into my body. That’s when I went to see a doctor near where I live, in Georgetown, and he advised me that he was going to have to take the implants out as well as the Alloderm, which was put in during my first surgery; it forms a sling for the implant. I almost fainted because that’s what I never wanted to do in the first surgery, but the doctor assured me not to worry since I already had implants; he said, “I will be able to fill the expanders, and you might only have to have them in a short time.”
It took a lot of surgery to get where I needed to be. I was never afraid because I knew my mother had breast cancer, and she lived many, many years after her surgery. In her day, they didn’t do much breast reconstruction. I knew I had options, and there were lots of advances in the treatment of breast cancer since my mother had it. I was also feeling good that my cancer was caught early. If the doctors had not done an MRI, they would not have seen the cancer in three of the four quadrants in my breast. Also, I was so happy that I made the decision to have a double mastectomy. Never for a minute did I think I might die. I had confidence in all the doctors I saw, and I said my prayers. I feel God blessed me.
That was the beginning of 2008. I had my third surgery in April 2008 and my last in September 2010, so it was a long road. One of the things that convinced me to have the mastectomy was I would not have to have chemotherapy or radiation, because they were removing both breasts. The doctors had checked my lymph nodes and they were fine, and there were no cancer cells in the nipples, so I felt lucky in many ways. But to think that I have had mammograms since I was 30 and no one picked up anything until I had my first MRI. The first biopsy might not have hit the proper spot otherwise because the surgeon must go to the center of the mass for a true reading.
Later, I sat on the advisory board for The Promise Fund and Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, founded by Nancy Goodman Brinker to honor her sister, Susan, who had passed away from breast cancer. The organization’s goal is to change the way women are treated and we successfully lobbied for insurance companies to pay for MRIs for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Now if you are diagnosed, you automatically get an MRI. You don’t have to wait to see if the insurance companies will cover the cost. In my case, I was reimbursed by my insurance company when they found out I had cancer.
I really encourage every woman to check herself as well as to have a regular GYN checkup. There have been so many innovations in diagnosis and treatment these days and your doctor will know what’s best for you among the choices increasingly available.
Many women chose a lumpectomy if the spot on their breast was small but before MRIs were available, the medical profession could not tell whether there were cancer cells in another part of the breast apart from the lump. Lumpectomies are fine if they are in a good place, but you don’t want to have one if you’re going to have large parts of your breast removed, leaving the breast deformed. So many women my mother’s age were afraid they’d be deformed and would no longer be attractive to their husbands, and their husbands would no longer love them. That kind of thinking caused some women to not always take their doctors’ advice. I don’t think women should be frightened. There are so many procedures they can do today to make you look at yourself again.
I was absolutely determined to have breast reconstruction. I knew I made a mistake at Johns Hopkins when the doctors explained to me why I should have had expanders from the beginning, as my original doctors advised. I ended up having seven surgeries over a two-year period. I was vain, yes—but I did this for myself, not for anyone else. I wanted my breasts to look and feel as natural as possible. I’m not unhappy it took as long as it did because I had done my homework and was willing to try experimental procedures because I trusted my surgeons absolutely. Sadly, the doctor who originally convinced me to have expanders and became ill before he could operate on me did pass away; but he really educated me and told me what every woman needs to know: find out your options medically and cosmetically.
Do women die from breast cancer? Yes—but it’s not a death sentence. Ninety-five percent of women diagnosed today are fine after treatment.
I feel good. I can tell you that my breasts feel like my natural breasts. Yes, as I’ve gotten older, the skin tends to sag, but it’s nothing like it would be if I didn’t have implants. I still get regular check-ups and have an incredible GYN who has a routine. She will examine me, then do an ultrasound or MRI to be sure nothing has come back and that my lymph nodes are healthy.
I am still cautious but I’m still not afraid. And I am very happy that I did everything I did to be where I am today.
To read more about Grace Bender, and to see her video interview, log onto Grace Bender – Philanthropist & Mother | ELYSIAN Magazine (readelysian.com)