Welcome to Breast Reconstruction Thoughts where I feature women who have undergone a single or bilateral mastectomy. Most have also had breast reconstruction, but some have not. Some entered this world through cancer, others due to testing positive for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation which highly increases their chances of a future cancer diagnosis. I hope their words bring insight and encouragement.
I don’t know Valerie personally, but was introduced to her online through my dear friend, Rachel. When you have your breasts removed, it’s like joining a club you didn’t ask to be in. But you get connected with some pretty amazing people because of it. I am so thankful for Valerie’s willingness to share her story, and for her openness about her experience.
Name: Valerie McClure
Family: Mike (husband), Ryan (son) – 16, Katelyn (daughter) – 14, Buddy (cat), Jovie (cat)
Occupation: Family Ministry staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church
Hobbies/Interests: family time, enjoying my kids’ activities (marching band, soccer, alpine ski, choir, jazz band, baseball), photography (especially creating our annual Shutterfly family photo albums)
Diagnosis: Infiltrating Ductal Carcinoma & DCIS (Ductal Carcinoma in Situ) in right breast/Stage 1
Age at Time of Diagnosis: 39
What was your initial response to your diagnosis?
Generally speaking, the days, weeks, and months surrounding my cancer diagnosis are a bit of a blur. I received my diagnosis and underwent a bilateral mastectomy within eleven days in November, 2008.
You chose not to undergo breast reconstruction. Was it a difficult decision for you? What things came into play in the decision making process?
Was it a difficult decision for me? No. Here are a few reasons why:
Ultimately, I made my decision based on my surgeon’s comment that reconstruction can potentially make future cancers in the area harder to detect. My tumor was very close to my ribcage, and my surgeon was concerned that, if any cancer cells were not removed in the surgery, they could metastasize on my ribcage or lung. An implanted prosthesis could mask such a recurrence.
Additionally, at that particular time, I was not in a good place in my relationship with my breasts anyway. I could hardly wait to have them removed, taking the cancer along with them. The idea of replacing them was not at all high on my priority list. More than anything, I just wanted to get through whatever surgery was necessary to restore my health so that I could go back to being fully present in my role as a mother to two young children. The time commitment, discomfort, and price of breast reconstruction did not seem worth the investment to me at that time of my life.
Thirdly, the alternative of using external silicone breast prostheses seemed like a good fit for me. While I never felt that my breasts defined me as a woman in any way, I also didn’t want a lack of breasts to define me or be a constant reminder to me and others of my cancer history. My external prostheses are comfortable, easy to care for, and (best of all) I can take them off at night for maximum sleeping comfort in any position! And, as an added bonus, I get brand new, perky breast replacements every two years!
What was the hardest thing about losing your breasts?
I don’t mean to imply that losing my breasts was easy. The hardest part for me is the loss of the pleasure they provided in my intimate relationship with my husband. I know that he received pleasure from them as well, and it was challenging to have that taken away from us as a couple. However, my husband was and continues to be an incredible partner throughout my cancer journey and its aftermath. Ultimately, this experience has brought us even closer together, and we continue to have a very satisfying physical relationship. (And, it is worth noting, reconstruction wouldn’t have restored sensation.)
Another issue that has been somewhat difficult for me is shopping for clothes. I have always kind of hated it because I am short and nothing seems to fit quite right. Now, I have the added challenge of needing to find outfits that don’t require natural cleavage to look flattering. Even though I spend 95% of my time wearing t-shirts or sweatshirts anyway, on the rare occasions that I want to dress up or dress for really hot weather, my choices are limited. V-necks and scoop necks are out because, when I lean forward, you can see the prostheses pull away from my chest. Tank tops and bathing suits aren’t any better because they tend to expose the side of my bra with the prostheses showing through the pocket. While I am fully aware that this is only a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, I do sometimes allow myself a brief “pity-party” while clothes shopping!
What is something you learned about yourself through your experience?
One thing that I have learned about myself through this experience is that I am definitely more than the sum of my parts. Losing my breasts hasn’t made me any less of a person or any less of a woman. In fact, I feel like I am more: more strong, more courageous, more compassionate, and more appreciative of the people in my life and the gift of each new day.
Do you have a piece of advice for women who are just beginning this journey?
It is hard for me to give advice to other women beginning this journey because every person and every situation is unique. I guess my advice would be to trust yourself. You are the expert on you and you can make the best choices and decisions for yourself. That being said, surround yourself with the best doctors and support system that you can find. You do not have to, nor should you, face any of this alone!
*Interested in more information about going flat? Going Flat: Choosing No Reconstruction