“If you notice a change in your breast tissue, consult your health professional,” the breast self-examination card hanging in patient Deborah Jones’ shower reads. For years, Deborah would go through the technique of routinely checking her breasts: pressing the pads of her index, middle and ring fingers to her opposite side with firm to light pressure to feel for lumps, thickening, hardened knots or any other changes. After diligently checking her breasts, she was surprised to have felt what she describes as a “little bean,” where there had previously been nothing. “I felt a little lump and I thought, ‘That’s weird, I’ve never felt that before.’ So, I went into my primary and they sent me for a mammogram–it was invasive ductal carcinoma,” Deborah said.
Accounting for about 80% of all breast cancers, invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) begins in the milk ducts and invades breast tissues. At the time that Deborah located the abnormality in her breast, she was in Stage 2, which means the cancer was growing but was still contained in the breast. Dr. Julie Sprunt, a physician specialized in breast surgery, worked with Deborah on her diagnosis and treatment plan to remove the cancer. As part of her treatment team, Dr. Sprunt referred her to plastic surgeon Dr. Elisabeth Potter to discuss breast reconstruction options. Describing Dr. Potter as very friendly and personable, Deborah says she felt comfortable from the moment she met her and that the two “just clicked.”
Upon hearing all of her options for breast reconstruction, Deborah was immediately interested in DIEP flap reconstruction, because her own abdominal tissue would be used to create a new breast. Throughout the process, Deborah says that she was treated not only like family at Dr. Potter’s office, but as if she was “the Queen Mother.” Between the information and level of care that Dr. Potter and Dr. Sprunt provided her with, Deborah felt mentally prepared going into surgery. “Their attitude was so positive that it kept me feeling good about everything that was happening to me,” Deborah said. “Every scenario that they could come up with and any questions that I had were addressed and answered to perfection. I didn’t feel nervous at all.”
After a DIEP flap procedure, it’s typical for women to feel sore for several weeks after surgery because it involves surgery on both the breast and abdomen. “Considering what it was, this whole process has been really easy for me,” she explains. In addition to her new “cute belly button,” a result of the DIEP flap surgery which provides benefits similar to a tummy tuck, Deborah’s journey has led her to place a greater emphasis on being active and continuing to prioritize her health, including keeping up on her monthly self-breast exams.
“I think self-breast exams are something that all women should do… I tell my two daughters and five sisters to do them routinely that way if something comes up, they can detect it before it gets to an advanced stage,” Deborah shares. “To this day that little exam card hangs in my shower as a reminder.”
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., 40% of diagnosed breast cancers are detected during breast self-exams. While 8 out of 10 lumps found are benign, or noncancerous, it is an extra precaution to take to increase the odds of early detection–in addition to clinical breast exams, screening mammograms and, in some cases, ultrasound and/or MRI. When Deborah made the life-changing discovery of finding the small lump in her breast and went to the doctor to have tests conducted, the invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) was in early stages and had not spread to her lymph nodes or any other areas of the body. Practicing breast self awareness helps women understand the normal look and feel of their breasts so that if something seems abnormal or different, like Deborah experienced, it can be reported immediately. Here are suggestions on how to perform a breast self-examination.
Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-examinations once a month. For women who are menstruating, it’s recommended to check 7-10 days after menstruation ends, because it can affect breast swelling and tenderness. With each self-examination, look for changes that may have occurred month-to-month to determine if a lump or bump is not typically there. This can also be addressed with your physician. For example, during Deborah’s annual mammograms, she was told that she had very dense breast tissue. Even so, she was able to detect something and bring it up to her doctor, who said, “locate it, tell me what it was and let’s get it taken care of.”
If you find a lump or one of the above differences in your breast, especially one that lasts more than one full menstrual cycle, do not hesitate to call your doctor. Keep in mind that there are various possible causes of non-cancerous breast lumps, such as hormonal changes, an injury or a benign breast condition, but it does not hurt to be cautious. During an appointment to evaluate a breast lump, doctors will take a health history, do a physical exam and most likely order breast imaging tests, such as an ultrasound and/or a mammogram. In some cases, patients may be referred to a breast specialist or surgeon, and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), MBI (molecular breast imaging) and/or biopsy may be performed.
Understandably, breast reconstruction may be the furthest thing from mind upon receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. However, seeing a plastic surgeon as early on as possible will determine the type and timing of breast reconstruction that makes the most sense for each woman’s unique circumstances. This consultation process was especially important for Deborah. “They make everything simple enough to be understood, laying out the options of what types of procedures are available and then helping you to understand what would be best for you,” she said of Dr. Potter and the team.
To learn more about DIEP flap surgery recovery time, what to expect after breast reconstruction and options for breast reconstruction, send us an email. We’re happy to answer any questions you might have. To connect with other women who have had, plan to have or are considering breast reconstruction surgery, Dr. Potter’s Breast Reconstruction And Virtual Empowerment (BRAVE) Facebook Group is available to join and we also have a list of resources that may be helpful.