With increasing rates of breast cancer, more and more women are being advised to have mastectomies, either preventatively or as a treatment for breast cancer. How does it really feel to hear those words from a doctor?
My mother died of breast cancer when she was 54. She was diagnosed at 53, with Stage IIIB, though if truth be told, I feel it was more advanced than that. She went through a year of chemo and radiation, and not more than a month after it was all done, she was back in the hospital. The cancer had spread to her liver and lungs, and her doctors told her if she didn’t have chemo, she’d be dead in four-six months.
She chose to do chemo, and was still dead less than a month later…not even a full year after her initial diagnosis.
I remember her oncologist telling me to NEVER do hormone therapy — her cancer was estrogen dominant, and at 30, I didn’t even blink an eye at that. Why would I need hormones any time soon?
But at 35, when years of infertility pushed me into the realm of IVF, it came up. My endocrinologists wanted me to know about the inconclusive research about IVF and breast cancer, and I understood — I thought. Eight fresh IVF cycles and three frozen cycles later? Maybe not so much.
My doctors have always been top-notch, and have been diligent about cancer prevention with me. But on our last IVF cycle, my doctors put a stop to any more. Every time I did a cycle, lumps came, and they were afraid I was just asking for cancer. I saw several high risk specialists who said the same thing — based on their models and the family history, genetic information received and other risk factors, they suggested I remove my breasts to prevent breast cancer. At the time, my risk rates of breast cancer were between 31% and 37%, depending on the model, and one surgeon said, “You went through a lot to get to motherhood. You don’t want to leave your child motherless, do you?”
I’ve always been the one who said, “I’d take them off in a minute if it meant I didn’t get cancer!” but when the surgeons told me I should? It wasn’t as easy. Mastectomies are major surgeries; breast reconstruction a big deal. It’s not as easy as “chopping them off to get the perfect pair,” and I wasn’t sure I was ready to do it. I sought the opinion of a third set of doctors at one of the biggest cancer centers in America, and was told that while they’d support a mastectomy, they’d also support diligence and some things to keep my estrogen levels down before they went full surgery.
I chose the natural route. I am diligent with breast checks, and appointments. I have annual genetic information done, as new research comes out all the time, and as more family history reveals itself. I use a bio-identical progesterone oil that my doctors believe is keeping lumps away, and so far? Almost four years after hearing, “You should really consider removal,” I am thankful to say I feel confident in my decision to wait until I feel I really need to remove them.
This is not an easy decision. Losing my mother and other loved ones, of course, makes me think, “Just get it done. Don’t risk cancer!” but hearing respected doctors say, “You aren’t being irresponsible if you choose to wait,” was validating, and I am thankful for compassionate care.
What would I tell you, if you were told to have preventative removal? I’d tell you to think about it. Long and hard. Do the research. Seek second and third and even fourth opinions, and from surgeons who do removals all day long and twice on Sundays.
And then, make the decision you feel you can best live with.