BRCA Surgeries: Small Victories

After twelve weeks of physical therapy I have been turned loose. Thanks to New Leaf Physical Therapy I have made the transition from post-surgical wreck to a new sort of interim state that is relatively normal. Next week I will see the plastic surgeon and expect she will schedule another surgery for July. In conjunction with Stage II breast revisions I will get rid of those other pesky cancer-prone female parts – the ovaries and tubes. More boob and belly surgery. Oh great.

It has been eighteen weeks since bilateral mastectomies knocked me for a loop. When I think about that long hospital stay, the multiple surgeries I endured in the effort to save my reconstructed breasts and the slow painful rehab process, the last thing I want is more time in the surgical suite. And yet, I can’t wait. Treatment, no matter what form it takes has distinct milestones along the way. Each one is worthy of some sort of acknowledgement. How am I celebrating this time?

Here is a $14.97 dress I bought at Costco last weekend. Who doesn’t enjoy a bargain? I plan to wear it in Hawaii in October. A week in Maui is a very happy thing to anticipate. The fact it is a size 8 does not hurt either. For an old bag who’s had a tough year, I look pretty decent. Another small triumph.

I try to savor these moments as a way to balance the inevitable fear of the next step in the path I’ve chosen. July will mark not only another BRCA surgery, but fourteen years as a breast cancer survivor. When I was first diagnosed at age 36 I wondered if I would live to see 40. Here I am at 50, sometimes angry and often afraid, but still here. In those same fourteen years I lost my father, an uncle and a cousin to various forms of cancer. One of my relatives has ovarian cancer. That is why I can deal with the fear and look forward to more surgery. Bring it on. Me and my $14.97 dress can handle it.

BRCA Surgery Decisions: A Devilish Dilemma

Miss Bubble, enjoying the "healing quilt" in between my surgeries


Statistics on cancer risks for those with defective BRCA genes are readily available, but teasing out numbers that assess any single individual’s risk is all but impossible. Science can provide a ballpark range, but there are many mitigating factors that can place one at the low end of the scale or all but guarantee that cancer will be headed your way.

The choice to select surgery as a means to manage cancer risk is insanely difficult for many people. Not for me. In some respects though, I do feel as if I’ve made a lousy bargain with the devil. I’m trading precious body parts for the hope of a normal lifespan. There are no guarantees, only a reduction in risk. I can still get breast or ovarian cancer even once all my girl parts are history. Other problems such as heart disease, osteoporosis and additional forms of cancer are very real possibilities when this “Year of Living Surgeries” is over. Apologies to that fabulous movie “The Year of Living Dangerously,” when Mel Gibson was just sexy, not crazy.

Are the BRCA surgeries worth it?

In my head is the idea for a novel based on this question. I hope it has a happy ending but I’m not going to wait around to see the results in my own life. In the short term I’ll write something else. Being worried about the future is not how I want to spend whatever time is left on my personal meter. Nor do I want to create a bucket list. Unless of course, it is what we call the “drink now bucket” around here. These are wines that have been aging in our cellar that need to be consumed before they pass prime drinking enjoyment.

In 1998 when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer and terrified that every tiny hiccup was a recurrence, my surgeon gave me a good piece of advice. “Go out and live your life” he said. That is what I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years.

Breast Cancer Surgery, Physical Therapy and My Shoes


Not being one of those women who owns a bunch of shoes, I don’t quite get it. Maybe that is because I have wide, inflexible feet that require orthotics and cannot wear flip-flops, never mind those sky-high platform pumps once reserved only for hookers. Just a trace of envy lives there perhaps, since most days my achy feet are confined to running shoes. Love of footwear is a common girly thing, but not for me. So, it was a rare moment when I found myself with a strong desire to photograph a bunch of women’s shoes, lined up in a haphazard way at the entry to a dance studio where I sat and waited to meet with a physical therapist. These shoes had a story to tell.

Portland, Oregon is one of those cities that has become trendy in recent years, in a quirky, low-key, ultra-green, creative, bohemian, food cart sort of way. Stumptown is cool, her suburban sprawl, not so much. I live in the sprawl and it suits me, but that day as I sat on a poofy couch surrounded by the colors and decor of India, large potted plants and a row of incredible shoes, I looked down at my tidy blue and white trainers with double-knotted white laces and saw myself anew.

A pair of large, chunky leather boots with square silver buckles. Red ballet flats, slightly scuffed. Those five-toed things that are supposed to be like walking barefoot. These were shoes I would not wear, even if my feet allowed. High-top black sneakers. Wedge platform ankle booties. There was a yoga class in progress and I could hear Zen-like music, although I could not see any of the participants. I imagined them to be ethnically diverse, attractive, slender, employed in good jobs, masters of composting and backyard chickens. They could lift their arms above their heads, twist, turn and stretch in every way. I was a housewife from the white-bread burbs, barely able to drive my car and in constant pain some seven weeks after a bilateral mastectomy.

From down the hall, the physical therapist came to collect me. Casually dressed, she wore no shoes, just brightly colored socks. Over the next six weeks she would  repair my shattered anatomy. Hours of expert massage with strange metal tools. Deceptively simple exercises. Self-massage techniques. A bit of psychology. This combination and my own dogged determination to do precisely what she suggested worked wonders. Pain melted away. Strength and stamina improved. Each week I returned, twice a week. The entryway shoe collection varied with my appointment time. I wore the same running shoes, but the person in them slowly became more like the old me.

At some point I realized that the women in the yoga class were not the Portland hipsters I’d imagined. Most were just like women everywhere. One or two women in that yoga class would get breast cancer, according to the odds. My talented physical therapist has way too much job security. And I have way too few pairs of shoes.