Not every woman chooses reconstruction after breast cancer surgery.
After a mastectomy—the removal of one or both breasts due to breast cancer—women have to make the often difficult decision about whether to undergo breast reconstruction surgery.
To someone who hasn’t had breast cancer, it might be hard to imagine why the choice is so difficult (especially if you have insurance available to cover the cost of the breast reconstruction). However, each choice comes with pros and cons. Like any surgery, breast reconstruction has certain risks, and some women may be less suited for the surgery than others. Others may simply be tired of having surgeries and procedures.
But ultimately, the decision is incredibly personal. These seven breast cancer survivors share why they chose breast reconstruction, and how they feel about their decision today.
“It’s my decision and it’s my body.”
Deciding whether to have breast reconstruction or not can be a tricky topic that many people—from your cancer treatment team to total strangers—will have opinions on. The input can be overwhelming and contradictory (and sometimes unwanted), but the choice is really in your hands.
“I knew the very first time I met with my surgeon what it is I wanted to do,” says Kelly Israel, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. “Of course, people had opinions on it, but in the end, it’s my decision and it’s my body.”
“It made me feel whole again.”
Some women don’t mind going “flat,” but for many women, losing the breasts from a mastectomy can cause a lingering feeling like something is missing.
“I made the choice to do reconstruction for myself,” says Roberta Albany, who was diagnosed in December 2013. “I waited two years after my diagnosis. And I’m happy that I did it, because for me, it made me feel whole again.”
“I wouldn’t have to answer so many questions.”
“I thought that reconstruction was an incredible option that I had to rebuild something that used to be there,” says Dana Donofree, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2010. Donofree is also the founder of AnaOno, which specializes in clothing for women with breast cancer.
Having breast reconstruction surgery allowed Donofree to avoid unwanted attention that made her feel different. “If I maybe had something that mimicked my breasts on my body, that in clothing I wouldn’t have to answer so many questions, or maybe I wouldn’t be looked at slightly differently than other people,” says Donofree.
“It’s okay to go at your pace.”
The decision can be overwhelming to make, especially when you’ve just undergone treatment and a major surgery for breast cancer. Some breast reconstruction surgeries can be done at the same time as the mastectomy, and others can be done later, according to the American Cancer Society. The bottom line: There’s no rule that says you have to get reconstruction immediately after a mastectomy.
“Know that it is okay to go at your pace and what’s gonna work for you,” says Sue Weldon, who was diagnosed in December 2013. “I waited four and a half years. I just wanted to make sure I was well [and] wouldn’t have to go back in … if there was something that was caught later on.”
“I decided to remove the implants for good.”
Not only can you delay the decision, but you can change your decision. For Chiara D’agostino, the decision to undo her breast reconstruction came after several unfortunate health challenges.
“Those implants got infected seven times,” says D’agostino, who was diagnosed in October 2014. “When I was diagnosed with stage IV triple-negative breast cancer, and I had one more implant infection, I decided to remove the implants for good, and focus on my health, so I’m staying flat.”
“[Women] can be sexy and strong and warriors without breasts.”
Although Megan Do Nascimento chose breast reconstruction, she often thinks about what it might be like if she hadn’t—or if she were to remove her implants.
“I’ve often thought about going flat,” admits Do Nascimento, who was diagnosed in November 2013. “I see a lot of women out there now that have made the decision to not have reconstruction. I’m actually feeling really inspired by them, that they can be sexy and strong and warriors without breasts.”
Some women are satisfied with their breast reconstruction, while others feel disappointed by their new body. The surgery does not restore feeling to the breasts, leaving a constant numbness in the area, according to the American Cancer Society. Plus, there may be scars that never fully go away.
“I have no feeling in my breasts,” says Do Nascimento. “There’s a constant pressure on my upper body. [There is] always a little tug that reminds myself that I had surgery and I had breast cancer.”
“Your body is going to be different.”
For some, there can be high expectations for breast reconstruction. They may hope that the surgery can improve both their body image and the trauma they’ve experienced as a breast cancer survivor.
“I felt like I was holding on until I got to reconstruction,” recalls Molly Weingart, who was diagnosed in March 2017. “Once I got reconstruction, everything was going to go back to normal—as it was before I was sick.”
When these expectations go unmet, the disappointment can be crushing. “The reality is, that doesn’t happen. Your body is going to be different,” says Weingart.
After breast reconstruction, many women undergo a period of emotional distress as they physically recover from the surgery and adapt to their new body. It takes time.
“I’m still adjusting,” says Weingart. “How do I handle this body that I used to be so familiar with and learn it again?”