Reconstruction After Breast Cancer
- In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which kicks off today, NBC News correspondent Kristen Dahlgren is sharing what she says were her “lowest points” during her battle: “when I was supposed to be ‘cancer-free.'”
- She detailed the side effects breast cancer has left her with that often aren’t talked about — numbness. The loss of feeling is a “constant reminder” of what she’s been through and what is yet to come. She reveals she has struggled through three reconstructive surgeries since October.
- Dr. Andrea Pusic tells SurvivorNet that there are two main ways to go about breast reconstruction after a mastectomy — one is using a woman’s own tissue, and the other is using breast implants.
But just because you can say you’ve won your battle with breast cancer doesn’t mean the struggling stops there; Dahlgren is now shining a light on this hard truth in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Dahlgren was deemed cancer-free in April 2020, but since her double mastectomy in January 2020, she’s undergone three additional, grueling surgeries to reconstruct her breasts.Read More
Dahlgren’s Breast Cancer Battle
Dahlgren was on assignment covering a hurricane in September 2019 when she noticed a dent in her breast. Upon getting it checked out by a doctor, she was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. She says she might have missed this important sign of disease had she not worked on a 2016 report at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota about breast cancer symptoms.
While lumps are the most common symptom of breast cancer, about one in six women diagnosed with this type of cancer never have one. Instead, they notice nipple changes, dents, dimples, pain or redness. It’s possible that any of these symptoms can be caused by other things, but if you have them, they should be checked by a doctor.
“When I saw the dent in my breast, I knew that it was something that I needed to get checked out, it wasn’t something to brush under the rug,” Dahlgren told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “Beneath the dent, I didn’t feel a lump, but something I might describe as thickening. It just felt different than everywhere else.”
Less than a year after her diagnosis, Dahlgren announced she was cancer-free in April 2020. But her struggle with breast cancer didn’t stop there.
Reconstruction & Chest Numbness After Breast Cancer
Dahlgren writes in her op-ed that cancer is not linear. “In fact, for many it hovers, long after the cells have been blasted from your body. As I write this, my right arm is aching and swollen, the result of lymphedema, a potentially crippling side effect of having cancerous lymph nodes removed.”
In October 2020, she shared another chapter of her story for TODAY. She detailed the side effects breast cancer has left her with that often aren’t talked about — numbness.
“Before breast cancer, I never realized that women who have mastectomies lose feeling in their chests. It makes sense, of course — since the nerves are cut during the surgery — but it’s not something that is often talked about,” she writes in her op-ed.
Before she was deemed cancer-free, Dahlgren underwent a double mastectomy — also known as a bilateral mastectomy — a surgery in which both breasts are removed at the same time. The loss of feeling from the surgery is a “constant reminder” of what she’s been through and what is yet to come. And since last sharing her story, she’s endured three more “painful” surgeries to reconstruct her breasts.
One surgery she had was to reconstruct her breasts using natural tissue from her abdomen and potentially restore some feeling she had lost. She then had two more surgeries when that was “a devastating failure.”
“The first conversation that I have with a woman who has breast cancer is just to help her feel comfortable, and help her start to understand that there’s going to be options for reconstruction,” Dr. Andrea Pusic, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tells SurvivorNet. “There’s really two main ways to do it. One is using a woman’s own tissue, and the other is using breast implants.”
Since using her own tissue to reconstruct her breasts was a “failure,” as she puts it, Dahlgren now has implants, “and instead of regaining feeling in my chest, I now also have numbness through my abdomen and even part of my leg,” she writes.
Dr. Pusic says that “a lot of breast reconstruction is trying to erase the trauma of the mastectomy surgery, putting the cancer behind a patient, saying, ‘This is in the rear view mirror,’ and putting her back on track.”
“It’s important to note my experience is completely different (from) the multiple women I talked to in researching my surgery, reinforcing the fact there is no cancer playbook. Each of us impacted by this disease is affected in unique ways, and for me, reconstruction has been infinitely harder than treatment,” she adds.
Breast Cancer Warriors Supporting Fellow Warriors
Dahlgren writes that “while every cancer experience is individual, the battle is not.”
From the moment she was diagnosed with the disease, “I have been surrounded by the most amazing network of breast cancer patients and survivors (or as I now prefer to call them, thrivers). There was the colleague who offered to drive hours to spend the night with me when I was stuck alone in an airport hotel, because she knew what it was like to wait for a biopsy. There was the friend and breast cancer survivor who spent her days off at the same hospital where she worked long, grueling hours, so she could sit with me through chemotherapy. There was the complete stranger who talked me through how she told her own young children about her cancer then sent us tips and care packages through my treatment.”
The support from family, friends, or even those who understand what you’re going through, like in Dahlgren’s case, is what’s going to get you through. This is something fellow cancer survivor Kelly Sargent can agree with. She moved to San Antonio, Texas, not knowing anyone, but she says she’s been “blessed with having met some incredible ladies.”
“When I was diagnosed (with ovarian cancer), as soon as I got in the hospital, I started going online to find not only information, but also support groups, stories from survivors, anything that I could find as far as my treatment I definitely looked for,” she tells SurvivorNet. “I have an incredible set of friends that I met after my diagnosis through a Bible study group that have become very, very close friends of mine that are an incredible part of my support system. That support from those ladies has been life-changing for me.”
Cancer warriors supporting fellow cancer warriors is a powerful thing. As Dahlgren writes, “If the millions of women who face this devastating disease can lift complete strangers, why can’t all of us? The world would be a better place, and each of us would know we are much less alone in whatever challenge we face.”