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.
Amber and I grew up together. She’s my cousin and lived just two blocks away from me in our tiny hometown of Britt, Iowa. We had more sleepovers than I can count. We wore a path to the Dime (not Dollar) Store after school to buy candy. And we drank tea with milk and lots of sugar at Grandma’s house every Saturday afternoon. I can only remember fighting with her one time, and that fight ended with my face in a snow drift, which I’m sure I didn’t deserve 😉
In 2016, just a couple months after my diagnosis, Amber was also diagnosed with breast cancer. Hers was more advanced than mine, and she underwent chemo and radiation in addition to her mastectomy and reconstruction. And she was (and still is) a rock star. Every time we spoke during that cancer year, she exuded positivity. She took what life gave her and she handled it with strength and grace.
I didn’t want cancer and neither did she, but I am sure thankful for a friendship that was rekindled through it.
Name: Amber Schoenauer
Hobbies/Interests: Exercise, sports, dogs
Diagnosis: ER2+, Stage IIIB
Age at Time of Diagnosis: 41
Type of Reconstruction: Tissue expansion with silicone implant (following unilateral mastectomy) *Amber’s mastectomy and reconstruction are just a small piece of her breast cancer story, but I’m thankful she took the time to share reconstruction her experience. She had a long road through treatment, but she kicked cancer’s butt.
What was your initial response to your cancer diagnosis?
Defeat. My divorce was final one year prior to diagnosis, my beloved pet was recently paralyzed, I’d been denied a promotion at work, and one more negative thing (and a pretty major thing) just seemed like I had officially been defeated.
You decided to have a single (unilateral) mastectomy instead of a double (bilateral) mastectomy. How did you land on that decision?
From the get-go, it seemed to me that only the bilateral option was presented, because that’s what most people do. But from the first moment that I thought I might have breast cancer, I wanted to do whatever I could for it to be as minimally invasive as possible. I wanted to retain as much of “me” as I could.
How did your doctors respond when you asked them about a single mastectomy?
I was apprehensive to talk to my surgeon because I felt like he really wanted me to do both. But he was very supportive and even showed me statistics that encouraged me that doing a single mastectomy was a good option. My oncologist told me that the choice was entirely up to me and said, “It’s whatever you need to do to sleep at night.”
How much time passed from your mastectomy through completion of reconstruction?
What was something you found surprising or unexpected about the reconstruction process?
The cosmetic surgeon didn’t really consult with me on what size I wanted to be following reconstruction. I felt like he “knew what was best” and would just do it. It seemed the decision wasn’t really mine to make. I wanted a reduction from my pre-diagnosis size, and since I wasn’t consulted on what I wanted, I had to assert myself to make that happen. I was also surprised and frustrated with trying to figure out what size I wanted to be. The doctor would only talk sizes in fluid cc, which I struggled to convert to a cup size.
*Amber also underwent surgery on her “native” breast so it would match as best as possible with her reconstructed breast.
What was the hardest part of the process?
Advocating for myself. I felt my team of doctors didn’t always communicate among themselves, so making sure we all had the same goal was an added challenge.
Do you have a piece of advice for women who are just beginning this journey?
There is an incredible network of women who have been through this, and people really want to help. Let them.