Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts (a profile series) at Life Reconstructed. Each Tuesday this fall, I will feature a woman who has undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also undergone breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis.
Each woman will tell us a little bit about herself and her experience. I hope their words will serve to bring encouragement to those who need it, and enlightenment to those who haven’t walked this path.
My first guest is Cathy.
Name: Cathy Van Maanen
Family: 3 adult children, Alex, Erica (& husband David, Kristyne & Jake), Anna
Occupation: Librarian & children’s theater director
Hobbies/Interests: books, walking, movies, my grandkids
Diagnosis: I had stage 1 Breast Cancer, originally diagnosed as Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. After a lumpectomy it was determined I really needed a mastectomy. A tumor was discovered and removed during the lumpectomy, but the margins weren’t clear so we proceeded with the mastectomy a few weeks later.
Age at Time of Diagnosis: 40
Type of Reconstruction: TRAM (transverse rectal abdominal muscle, tunneled under the skin to form new breast)
What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?
Fear for my kids. They were 9, 8, and 4 at the time of diagnosis. I had been widowed at age 35, and at the time of diagnosis had recently remarried. (Yes, the 4-year-old was born shortly after her father’s death.) I will never forget my 4-year-old daughter’s comment while we were driving down the street. “Sorry you got cancer Mommy, and I hope you don’t die, but at least I got to know you.” Now that’s a wake-up call.
How much time passed from your mastectomy/bilateral mastectomy through completion of reconstruction?
The oncologist, surgeon and plastic surgeon worked together beautifully and decided that because my cancer was in such an early stage, the likelihood of follow-up treatment was minimal. So I had mastectomy and reconstruction done in one 8 hour marathon of surgery.
What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?
They moved the birthmark on my belly and gave me a fake belly button! ! That sounds so silly, but I felt so rearranged and for a long time my own body felt very foreign. Also the numbness was strange. No felling in my armpit, and of course I couldn’t move my arm at all for awhile.
What was the hardest part of the process?
Gosh, I know it was hard. I remember the first tiny walk outside, and going to the physical therapist to help get range of motion back in my arm. But I was SO fortunate not to have to go through any other treatment that in hindsight, and we’re talking 17 years, it wasn’t that bad. So many patients go through so much more, and I am alive & well so have no complaints. The beauty of hindsight!
What is something you learned about yourself through your mastectomy/reconstruction experience?
God is good. God is faithful. And I have been equipped for more than I ever imagined. It’s OK that I’m a bit rearranged. Today I feel healthy and whole.
Do you have a piece of advice for women who are just beginning this journey?
Don’t do it alone. You don’t have to go live on social media (in fact, don’t!) but let those close to you be a part of your journey. Keep God close and have the confidence to ask questions, and research what you’re going through.