Today is my 42nd birthday! Happy birthday to me!! I welcome the day with a few more wrinkles but an appreciation that I'm here at all. I realize - because of the industry I have chosen as a news anchor and reporter - that my looks are somewhat tied to my job. But I don't dread these birthdays, I celebrate them - because every fine line that deepens, every grey hair that Becky has to cover and every little brown spot that pops up on my face - mean I'm here, I'm alive and I'm still cancer free.
It's been nearly seven years since I was diagnosed with infiltrated ductal carcinoma. That's a fancy way of saying I had aggressive breast cancer. At the time of diagnosis, I chose to undergo a lumpectomy with radiation and chemotherapy. People to this day ask how I garnered the strength to go public with my battle. To allow cameras to capture all of it - from surgery to radiation, chemo to hair loss, even anchoring one newscast bald. I look back to that time in my life - a very scary and difficult time - and thank God for using me in such a great way. It was an easy decision, because I knew I could offer comfort, hope and a realistic expectation of what was to come for all my bosom buddies.
But now - at this point in my life - it's time to face another difficult decision. Before I tell you what it is - and why I've made the decision I have - I need to talk a little about the other cancer treatment I have undergone. My cancer was estrogen positive. That means those little buggers actually fed off of the estrogen in my body. It was their nourishment. The cancer cells need estrogen to grow and divide. So, my oncologist Dr. Lisa Fichtel placed me on Tamoxifen, to stop estrogen from feeding any rogue cancer cells that could be floating around my body. It works as a blocker, preventing the estrogen from reaching the cancer cell - starving it in a way. I also had my ovaries removed because I knew I was at greater risk for ovarian cancer and removing them would further reduce the estrogen in my body. (Before the surgery, though, I went through fertility treatments and froze 21 embryos… thanks, Dr. Neal)! Two years after I started taking Tamoxifen, researchers discovered that Femara was even more effective in preventing a recurrence in postmenopausal women. Femara is the brand name for a drug that actually stops the production of estrogen in the body. Studies found women who took it had fewer recurrences than those who took Tamoxifen. My oncologist Dr. Fichtel immediately switched me to Femara - and I am taking it to this day. I've been on Femara for nearly four years. But here's the bad news: it can only be taken for five years. That means one more year - and then no more Femara!
Which leads me to my difficult decision. After months of praying, researching, and talking to different doctors, I have decided to have a prophylactic mastectomy. I am 42 years young - with half of my life still ahead of me (God willing). That means 40 years for the cancer that ravaged my healthy tissue once do the same thing again. Whatever went awry when I was 35 could very well go awry when I'm 45, 50, 60 or older. Rather than wait and see what happens once I stop the Femara, I have decided to reduce the risk dramatically, by removing the tissue those cancer cells so love to destroy. I realize it doesn't eliminate all chances of cancer coming back or developing, but it does make those chances very minimal.
Once I made the decision to have the procedure, then came the most difficult part of all: choosing the right doctor, and the best procedure, for me. I had heard about the TRAM flap procedure, and met many women who had undergone it. I heard you got a free "tummy tuck" because doctors use the tissue from your tummy to build your new breasts. That part sounded great! But, as I began to research it, I also learned about the negative parts of the procedure. Abdominal muscles - your "sit up" muscles - are removed along with the tissue. That leaves some people with a weakened core, making many tasks more difficult. Some women also develop bulges and hernias in the belly where the muscle is removed. I love to work out - and I'm very active - so that part sounded just terrible to me. That's when I heard about another procedure called the DIEP flap. That stands for Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator. In this procedure very little - if any - muscle is removed. The perforating vessels, along with the overlying flesh, are removed - but the muscle is left in place. The recovery time is quicker, but the surgery is much more involved, and it takes a microsurgery expert to perform it.
Because it is relatively new, only a few doctors in the country specialize in the DIEP Flap procedure. We happen to have a couple of them right here in San Antonio. Dr. Peter Ledoux will be my surgeon - the man I am trusting to rebuild my body once Dr. Rosenthal removes my breast on March 5th. I have decided to have what's called a "skin-saving mastectomy" where only the areola and nipple are removed; the breast tissue is scooped out, but the skin is left intact. Dr. Ledoux will immediately go to work, removing tissue from parts of my abdomen, and then "refill" the area. He will then micro-surgically attach blood vessels removed from my stomach, to my chest wall. I will have living soft tissue - that looks and feels like real breasts. I will wake up with breasts - but must wait three months to have the nipple created and tattooed. If you go to Dr. Ledoux's website, you can see before and after photos - and see what amazing work they do.
The doctor and his nurses have given me a handout explaining the procedure, the recovery and what I can expect. I have searched the internet for personal accounts of the surgery and recovery, but I've been unable to find anything that really spells it out in detail.
When I made the decision to go public with my battle with breast cancer, I did it because I felt there was a purpose - that it could actually benefit women who are experiencing the same thing. This time I had to ask myself that question again. "What would be the benefit of sharing this experience with viewers?" I really don't see a benefit to video taping the procedure and recovery; a 2 minute story on my personal account wouldn't offer any information I couldn't give you from another person's story. That's why I've decided to do a news story on the procedure - using someone who has already gone through it. But I do think there is a need for information about the entire experience - from start to finish. So I'm going to keep a diary - from before surgery, until the healing process is complete. It will be there for women - like me - who need to make a decision about their own treatment and surgery. It will be there to give a first-hand account of exactly what to expect.
Now, with that said, "I" don't even really know what to expect - we will find out together! I will have to miss a few weeks of work, but will record on audiotape - or paper - what is happening every day. I will post my progress on my diary.
To all of you who have supported me, prayed for me, and encouraged me, I say thank you, thank you, thank you. Please keep me close in your prayers as I embark on another chapter of my battle - this time to prevent breast cancer!!!