As hard as the treatments can be, cancer survivors often say that the experience led them to make important changes in their lives, bringing with it new perspectives and the chance for growth.
For recent divorcee and single mom Aileen Silver, it all started when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, at the age of 46.
“I could feel a lump in my left breast, but my gynecologist didn’t believe it was an issue,” says Silver. “I’d wrestled with thyroid cancer a few years earlier, which had initially been diagnosed incorrectly. This time I wasn’t taking any chances, so I immediately scheduled an appointment to get a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. If you have dense breasts like mine, it’s really important to know that the X-rays they take far too often fail to spot the growth.”
Ultimately, Silver had a lumpectomy, followed by a preventive hysterectomy. Despite all the hardships, she navigated the journey without losing her wry sense of humor.
“They ‘stage’ cancer like it’s a musical production”, she says today. “Well, that’s because it is a production and you need to choreograph every last bit of it, especially the physical reconstruction!”
Still, the extent of the interventions left her feeling self-conscious and plagued by body image issues.
Says Silver: “I was a very large-breasted woman, and since I’m only 5”1’, I really wanted a change. My doctor agreed to perform a breast reconstruction, but when I woke up from the operation I could see that my breasts were still droopy and of the same size as they were before. I was very angry because I wouldn’t have had surgery had I known it wouldn’t make any difference. I hated the way my body looked; I felt old. Worse, l immediately had to start up with radiation and chemotherapy, which meant that a second reconstruction was out of the question. The doctors were more concerned with saving my life, so for a year I had no choice but to live with it.”
When tests determined that she was finally cancer free, Silver spoke with the head of plastic surgery at Los Angeles’ City of Hope Hospital, Dr. James Andersen. “I begged him to re-do the reconstructive surgery, but the big question was whether they could operate on breasts that had been treated with radiation. Generally, radiated tissue doesn’t heal very well. Dr. Anderson thoroughly explained the risks and complexity of the procedure, which involved a mastectomy and a back tram flap – that’s when they take muscle tissue from your back. I chose to go ahead with it.”
The radiated breast has since shrunk, something Silver says is not uncommon. This means that she has one more surgery to undergo: “Dr. Andersen reconstructed both of my breasts to be smaller and I’m very happy with them, although my right breast is much bigger than the left. Next year we’ll make them symmetrical again. I’m also getting the scars around my abdomen reduced.”
Plastic surgery turned something horrible and tough into a more positive, uplifting experience.
Earlier in life Silver had never considered cosmetic procedures, but cancer made her change her mind. “I’m not one of those women who’ll get work done for every little thing, but I can tell you, plastic surgery has made me feel like a sexy young woman again. I’m much less embarrassed to be seen naked with all of my scars exposed, and with the right clothes you can’t even see them at all. Some of the expenses were covered by my health insurance plan, and some I had to pay for out of pocket, but it was worth every penny. I love how I look! Even without a bra, I feel so confident! Plastic surgery turned something horrible and tough into a more positive, uplifting experience.”
Silver offers some sage advice for anyone considering plastic surgery post-cancer:
Don’t accept the end results if you don’t like them.
“You should feel beautiful after reconstructive surgery. If the results aren’t satisfying, the doctors will go in and redo it as many times as they need to. If the radiation makes one breast shrink, get it fixed. It’s what I did. I already feel fantastic and I’ve still got one more surgery to go for fine tuning.”
Take care of yourself on every level.
“I chose to follow up my hysterectomy with a tummy tuck. Getting a flat stomach was extremely empowering, especially after having kids in my 40s and feeling like Frankenboob for all that time. The cancer surgeries had deconstructed me – it was my turn to reconstruct myself.”
Keep the sensation if you want.
“I chose to have a lumpectomy and bilateral reduction. I was lucky I had a choice and they never had to remove my nipples, so I still feel most of the sensation when they’re stimulated. I actually had them redone and the funny thing is, they became even more sensitive afterwards!”
Enjoy your new and improved body.
“I decided to have some liposuction done after my breast reconstruction and tummy tuck. Since I was getting a hysterectomy and lumpectomy, they couldn’t put my body through any more strain, so I had it to get it done months later. I woke up loving how I looked. I was terrified of not feeling like a real woman after my hysterectomy, but now I look more womanly and curvy than ever before. I may have lost a few years of living with my 15 months of chemotherapy and radiation, but I feel like the plastic surgery gave them back to me.”
“I have young children and had to think about whether risking complications just for looks was a selfish thing to do, but the doctors assured me that I had no reason to worry, and they were right: I went from feeling like my body betrayed me to being in love with myself. Learning to overcome my fears was everything!”