The FORCE meeting, another fill, and the Pan-Mass Challenge Teen Bike Ride

Is it really Sunday evening already? Where did the weekend go?! (Note: It’s now Monday and I am posting this while at work since I don’t have access to the Interwebz at home!) Well, now’s the time for reflection…starting with last weekend!

Last Sunday I attended a FORCE meeting in Agoura Hills. FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) is an organization focused on hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. There are chapters all over the country, including a few in Southern California. Until last week, I’d never attended a FORCE meeting.

There were about twenty women present, as well as a few brave husbands. We spent some time mingling and getting to know one another. Trisha was there and since I felt like the awkward new kid, I stuck to her. But I did make some new BRCA friends, too! Finally the guest of honor arrived: Dr. Karam!

If you’ve started reading Ticking Time Bombs recently or you’re a veteran reader who hasn’t been taking copious notes on every post, you might need a quick lesson on Dr. Amer Karam. I always talk about Dr. Festekjian, my plastic surgeon, but he is only half of my mastectomy dream team (I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing!). Dr. Karam is the breast surgeon who performed the first part of my mastectomy in March, removing all of my breast tissue. His official title is gynecologic oncologist; he performed my mom’s oophorectomy in February. We Horns really do like to keep things in the family.

With Dr. Karam’s arrival, we started the actual meeting. First there was a round of introductions; most people shared their name, family history of cancer, BRCA status, and if they have had or are planning to have any surgeries. There were a fair number of women who had already undergone prophylactic mastectomies and oophorectomies, but there were also quite a few who were just beginning to consider surgery.

Check out Dr. Karam’s red shoes…he’s a breast surgeon with impeccable fashion sense. (Photo borrowed from Trisha.)

The Q&A with Dr. Karam was very random and tangential. It seemed that one person’s question would inspire a new question from someone else, and we sort of bounced around the room for a few hours going from question to question. To be honest, all of the talk about breast cancer bored me—it’s really not on my radar anymore since my mastectomy! But I did find the discussions about ovarian cancer and breast reconstruction very useful.

Dr. Karam is a fantastic resource and I think he helped a lot of women at the meeting. He knows how to explain complicated scientific concepts in much simpler, easy-to-follow ways. I felt very proud to tell people there that he was my breast surgeon! It was almost a sort of “hahaha my breast surgeon is better than yours neenerneenerneener sticking my tongue out at you” moment.

The best part of the FORCE meeting was the breast reconstruction “show and tell” at the end! I felt relieved that my tissue expanders looked similar to those of other women at the meeting. And I got to see someone’s “finished product” which made me even more excited for my implants—hers looked amazing! A few of the ladies who are considering prophylactic mastectomies were very impressed by what they saw…my tissue expanders included. I think it’s very helpful and reassuring to see that the final outcome of a horrendous surgery can look so fantastic.

On Wednesday morning I had a tissue expander fill with Dr. Festekjian. I’m now up to 650 ccs of saline on each side, and I can certainly feel more tightness. We talked about what I want in an implant. I am most concerned about projection. Dr. Festekjian mentioned that style number 45 gives the most projection, but those implants are more narrow so they usually look best on people with a small chest. He said the next best option is style number 20, which my mom has.

Just for reference, this is what a tissue expander looks like.

And this is what a silicone implant looks like.

I know for sure I will have one more tissue expander fill, putting me up to 700 ccs on each side. I could go up to 750 ccs, but I think that might be a bit too big for me. These tissue expanders are starting to get pretty bulky! Plus, I want to have the implant exchange surgery on November 19, so the final tissue expander fill needs to be six weeks before that date.

Dr. Festekjian said that he will order a few options for implants. During the actual surgery, he’ll “try them out” to determine which looks best. Gee, it sounds like we’re shopping for prom dresses!

OK, now for something completely different: I want to mention the Pan-Mass Challenge Teen Mountain Bike Ride, an event organized by my niece and nephew.

First, a bit of background on the Pan-Mass Challenge: The Pan-Mass Challenge is a bike-a-thon held every summer in Massachusetts. 100% of the money raised by riders is donated to the Jimmy Fund, a cancer research and treatment center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

My sister Wendy has participated in the Pan-Mass Challenge for twelve years, raising over $127,000 for the Jimmy Fund. This year, my niece Nicole (age 14) and my nephew Matthew (age 16) are stepping up their game by organizing the first Pan-Mass Challenge Teen Mountain Bike Ride, for 13-18 year olds.

The Teen Mountain Bike Ride will be held on October 13 at 9 am in Westwood, Massachusetts. If you know of any teenagers in the Boston area who are in need of community service hours, please let them know about the ride. It sure beats picking up trash on the beach!

Needless to say, I’m very proud of Matthew and Nicole for taking the reins on this idea. The Pan-Mass Challenge is a well-respected event in New England, and there is a similar bike ride for younger kids. Matthew and Nicole saw the need for a ride aimed at teenagers, and they’re making it happen.

Matthew and Nicole, the founders of the PMC Teen Mountain Bike Ride. Just a side note: aren’t they ridiculously good looking?

They’ve always been very receptive and caring kids. This past April, when they came to visit for their spring break, Nicole pulled me aside and asked how my boobs were doing (her words, ha!) Okay, I know that’s not a huge deal, but she’s only 14. (Actually, she was still only 13 at the time!) I was so touched and impressed that she not only understood my choice to have a mastectomy, but that she wanted to check up on me. It’s not exactly a light topic for anyone, let alone a teenager.

For more information, please visit the official page for the Teen Mountain Bike Ride, as well as this article published by a local newspaper. I wish I could be there in person to support Matthew and Nicole during this great event. There’s always next year!

 

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November 2011: Mom’s mastectomy

Following Mom’s second breast cancer diagnosis in September 2011, she was tested for a BRCA mutation. She tested positive, explaining why she had been targeted by breast cancer twice in only twelve years.

Twelve years ago, in 1999, she was given the choice between a mastectomy and a lumpectomy. Twelve years ago, she didn’t know about the BRCA genes; not many people did, since the BRCA genes had only been discovered about five years earlier. Why have a mastectomy when the cancer tumor could be removed, and any remaining cells could be attacked with chemotherapy and radiation? A mastectomy meant losing her breast and dealing with even more surgery; a lumpectomy seemed like a much easier solution. So she had a lumpectomy.

Twelve years later, it was obvious that a mastectomy would be the smart choice for dealing with this second case of breast cancer. Her BRCA mutation meant that any breast tissue could turn lethal; having a lumpectomy might only be a temporary stop to breast cancer.

On November 9, 2011, we drove over to UCLA Medical Center at the crack of dawn for the mastectomy. Mom had showered and braided her hair the night before and was in all around good spirits. The three of us (Mom, Dad, and me) waited in a small pre-op room. Throughout the next hour, various people popped in to say good morning and explain any last minute surgery details: We saw her breast surgeon, Dr. Helena Chang; her (and later my) plastic surgeon, Dr. Jaco Festekjian; and many members of the anesthesiology team.

Here we are before Mom’s mastectomy…notice her braids! Smart choice.

Mom’s breast reconstruction, done by Dr. Festekjian, was a combination of a DIEP Flap procedure and a tissue expander insertion. Fat tissue from her stomach was used to create a left breast (the DIEP Flap procedure). This was necessary because her left breast, which had been radiated twelve years before, could not support an implant. Some women are able to use the DIEP Flap procedure to recreate both breasts, but Mom was too skinny for that! A tissue expander (like mine!) was inserted under the muscle of her right breast.

Dad and I sat in the hospital waiting room for hours during her surgery. A television screen monitored the progress of each patient, tracking if they were still in surgery or if they had been moved to a recovery room. After more than eight hours, Mom was moved from a recovery room to a hospital room. We were finally allowed to see her.

As expected, she was very drugged up and was also having problems with nausea. But she’s a trooper, and the next few days were easier. I tried to visit her each day after work or school, bringing her food or small gifts. One present was a 20 Questions electronic game. We had a lot of fun with that one, and her nurse was delighted because she had recently purchased the same toy for her grandson but had no idea how to use it! It’s a good thing I was there to teach her. =P

The 20 Questions toy!

After Mom’s mastectomy, her breast tissue was sent to a lab to be biopsied. Since she already had breast cancer, they studied the tumor to determine the next course of action. We were all delighted when Dr. Chang called to say that the tumor was very small and contained, meaning that chemotherapy would be optional! Yahoooooo!

Since it was Mom’s choice and she had already gone through the trauma of chemotherapy and radiation once before, she opted to forgo the optional extra treatments.

Mom, relaxing at home in bed in the days following the mastectomy. Note the Stuffed Usurper, a stuffed animal version of our dog Madeline, who was on vacation in San Diego with her auntie and uncle.

Over the next few months, Mom returned to Dr. Festekjian to have saline inserted into her tissue expander. She also started to see Dr. Amer Karam (my breast surgeon…isn’t he cute?!) about having a prophylactic oopherectomy. Dr. Karam is a gynecologic oncologist and breast surgeon–a true Renaissance man!

A BRCA mutation is not just about breast cancer; it also means an increased risk of ovarian cancer. Since Mom went through menopause already, removing her ovaries (an oopherectomy) was a practical decision.

The timing worked out that Mom’s oopherectomy could be at the same time as her implant exchange surgery, on February 27, 2012. Dr. Festekjian swapped out the tissue expander on her right side for a permanent silicone breast implant. He also took care of a few aesthetic issues associated with the DIEP scar. Dr. Karam performed the oopherectomy.

Since both surgeries were more minor than the mastectomy, Mom was able to come home later that afternoon…and I was able to go to Vegas with my girlfriends the following weekend without worrying about her, whoohoo!

Her recovery has been great since both surgeries. When she regained strength in her upper body, Mom joined the LA Pink Dragons, a dragon boat team of breast cancer survivors. She rows with them twice a week in Long Beach, and she loves it!

Physically, she looks HOT. The DIEP Flap procedure was in essence a tummy tuck, and her reconstructed breasts are slightly bigger than before, making her a large B cup/small C cup. If you’re going to get cancer, you might as well reap the benefits of fighting it off…get a rockin’ bod!