“We’re going to make this look so pretty.” Those words, spoken by my breast reconstruction plastic surgeon, Dr. Elisabeth Potter, gave me hope for the first time in over 15 years. As I sat in her office during our first meeting, all I could think was, “I’m going to feel pretty again?” Hard, crude in shape and riddled with scars, my current implants never felt like a part of me, and I couldn’t wait to rid myself of them. Dr. Potter filled me in about my reconstruction options. Until then, I thought implants were my ONLY choice. Together, we settled on the DIEP flap procedure which uses skin and tissue from the abdomen to reconstruct beautiful, natural feeling breasts!
When we left her office that day, I turned to my husband, Jim, and smiled. “I love her! She’s going to be part of my Dream Team.” He nodded, and as we walked out of the building, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d finally found the person who’d make me whole again.
That April 2018 visit was a stark contrast to September 2004. At the age of 29, and after only six months of marriage, I found myself with with an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis. Shocked because I had no family history of disease, it was a difficult time for both Jim and me. I knew I wouldn’t have control over what was about to happen to my body, so I felt it was important to deliberately choose a positive attitude and outlook. With my husband’s support, I began my journey.
Because I was stage 2b and very young, my cancer team opted for an aggressive treatment. We attacked it with eight rounds of dose-dense chemo. As far as surgery was concerned, I felt that it was a “no-brainer” regarding a bilateral mastectomy. I wanted to completely eradicate the cancer and eliminate the chance of a recurrence in the opposite breast. While I was mentally ready to face cancer, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming sense of loss I’d experience after my breasts were gone. I lost my identity but, more importantly, my womanhood. I did have high hopes that, with my breast reconstruction, I’d regain my sense of self.
And that’s why it was disappointing to look in the mirror for the next 15 years thinking, “Well, at least I am alive.”
My initial plastic surgeon was a very nice man, but looking back, I wish I’d had a female surgeon. While I think plenty of male surgeons have the training and expertise to perform reconstruction procedures, I think it might be harder for them to understand how it feels to be a woman who has lost her breasts. Maybe my reconstruction was medically adequate, but I really wanted something more. I hated the way they were positioned off to the sides. There was a huge gap between them. When my chest was in a flexed position, they looked weird. And hugging someone was super awkward because I couldn’t actually feel their hug in return. I felt that a female surgeon might be able to provide me with better results, and after my oncologist recommended Dr. Potter specifically, I felt hopeful again.
On my DIEP surgery day, I was excited. I didn’t feel scared or nervous – in part because Dr. Potter was just as excited as I was. I wasn’t Patient A or Patient B, and I truly feel this is what separates her from other plastic surgeons. As soon as I saw her, I said, “Let’s do this.” And we did. My surgery lasted about eight hours, and when I woke up, both Dr. Potter and her PA, Sarah, were attentive to my every need. They were a soothing presence for me – so much in fact, that it didn’t seem like any big deal.
Truthfully, the whole process is quite amazing. The best analogy was shared with me by Dr. Potter herself. She told me that it was like plumbing and my veins were like pipes. When transferring my abdomen skin and fat to form breasts, everything had to “match up.” It’s called microsurgery, and Dr. Potter has very special training. I spent four days in the hospital, learning how to be patient and take things slowly. I think that’s the hardest part for any of us going through breast cancer, and I mention that only because I may not have totally slowed down! Somehow I ruptured a blood vessel, but Dr. Potter dropped everything and took care of it immediately in emergency surgery. I can’t put my feelings of gratefulness into adequate words.
I really thought I could tell this story without tearing up, but that’s simply not the case. I feel that Dr. Potter has truly changed my life. She’s given me back a part of myself that had been missing for such a large part of my adult life. I tried to feel confident with something that was never a part of me. Surgeon may learn medical techniques in medical school, but they can’t be taught how to have a heart. Reconstructive surgery is Dr. Potter’s calling.
Today I have a feminine shape. Today I have a tight, flat stomach – what a bonus from the DIEP flap procedure! And today I can hug my family and really feel them hugging me back. It feels good to be me again.