In the summer of 2010, Peggy Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Within a few days, she'd had a mastectomy. The surgery wasn't something she hesitated about — she just wanted the cancer gone from her body. It was afterwards that the emotional ramifications hit home.
“I think I was really numb at first,” the Elliot Lake high school teacher said.
“I said 'I'm OK, I'm OK, this is fine.' ... But emotionally, I don't think I accepted it. I can't say why ... I think I just didn't feel comfortable with that new adjustment.
“I'd see myself in the mirror every day, and just thought, 'No, I don't like it. I've accepted it, but I don't like it.'”
While she began thinking about breast reconstruction soon after her mastectomy, she had to wait for awhile to pursue it.
In what Davis describes as a “bad year,” she also ended up having several other surgeries within months of her mastectomy, including both hip and knee replacement surgery.
She eventually got onto the waiting list for local plastic surgeon Dr. Amanda Fortin, who specializes in breast reconstruction. Finally, in January of this year, Davis received breast implants.
Davis asked to receive the smallest implants possible, as she's always had a very small bust. She received them on both sides for a symmetrical look.
Because this type of breast construction is the simplest possible, she also had a relatively short recovery time, and Davis was back at work within a few weeks. Other types of breast constructions have recovery times of up to three months.
While Davis said she's been happy with the results, it did take some getting used to.
“For the first six months, you feel like there's something there,” she said. “You don't feel normal. You just notice that they're there all the time. But this is nine months later, and you feel like you did before.”
Before making the decision to get breast reconstruction, Davis attended the 2012 Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day at Health Sciences North, where information is provided on the various surgical options.
“This is really helpful,” she said.
“It really confirmed what I wanted. I think that whole awareness and education is what women need. I would have been hesitant had I not had any understanding of what the procedure involved, and just being educated makes you want it even more.”
Davis was also on hand to share her experiences at this year's BRA Day, which took place Oct. 16 at Health Sciences North.
The event included a presentation from Fortin, who has been practising in Sudbury for two-and-a-half years, on the various surgical options and testimonials from women who have received reconstruction surgery.
There was also information on hospital breast cancer supportive care, and a local business — The Lingerie Shoppe — showed off an array of specialized products for those who have undergone mastectomies.
Although fewer than 20 per cent of women who have had breast cancer receive breast reconstruction, Fortin said the purpose of BRA Day is to let them know what's available.
While it's not always the most pleasant process, the surgeon said her patients say it's worth it. In many ways, it “closes the loop” on the breast cancer journey, she said.
“You've heard the ladies talk about improving their body image, their feeling of being a whole woman again,” Fortin said.
“So even though it's not a medically necessary procedure, it certainly does make the woman feel a lot more comfortable. It's the whole psychosocial aspect of feeling like a woman, being able to fit in their clothes, go for a swim and not feel self-conscious, and trying to get past that cancer feeling.”
For more information about breast reconstruction, visit www.breastreconstructioncanada.ca.
Breast reconstruction options:
The surgeries, which are fully covered by OHIP, fall under three basic categories, Fortin said. The one Davis opted for — breast implants — is the simplest, she said.
“We basically stretch out the skin and the muscle on the chest wall to create small to medium-sized breasts,” Fortin said.
Another type of surgery relocates part of the back muscle – the latissimus muscle – to create more tissue to cover breast implants.
“It allows us to do a reconstruction in one step, as opposed to having to have many visits to stretch out the tissue, but the tradeoff is it's a bigger surgery,” Fortin said.
The third type of surgery uses a patient's own abdominal skin, muscle and fat to reconstruct natural breasts.
“It'll grow with you, it'll shrink with you if you gain or lose weight, and generally has a nice, soft feel,” she said.
“It's the most natural reconstruction, but the downside is it's the biggest surgery and the longest recovery time, which is about three months.”
To create nipples, Fortin uses a combination of reconstructing the available tissue and tattoos for pigmentation. Partial breast reconstruction is also available for women whose breasts have been deformed due to lumpectomies.