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Coming Full Circle

Cathy Eaton can't stop buying bras. In six short months, the 52-year-old has bought 13. They come in all colors. Some are more utilitarian, designed to support her during the long hours she spends on her feet working as a manager at Wendy's. Others come in vibrant hues, jazzed up with lace and patterns. If you are a woman, you put on this inconsequential piece of clothing every day and probably, you think very little of it. But if you are a woman like Cathy, you know that latching those clasps each morning represents a small, very important piece of who you are.

"I feel like a girl again," Cathy says.

In 2005, after a partial mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, Cathy won her fight against breast cancer. For 6 years, Cathy lived a survivor's life. Her breasts were asymmetric, frumpy clothes hid her figure and Cathy felt somehow "incomplete." She had kicked cancer, but wasn't sure of the woman she had become along the way. It was only after losing 65 pounds, getting her blood pressure under control and meeting Northwest Hospital plastic surgeon Dr. Joshua Cooper that Cathy decided to stop surviving and start living. To go with a new body and a new attitude, Cathy decided she wanted to undergo breast reconstruction.

According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime. That means more than 175,000 U.S. breast cancer diagnoses each year. Of this number, many will have surgery to remove the tumor, part or all of a breast, or both breasts entirely. But losing a breast to cancer doesn't have to be permanent. In 2008, more than 79,000 women underwent some form of breast reconstruction, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS). That number represents a 39 percent increase since 2007.

"Breast reconstruction can truly benefit patients' psychological, social and emotional well-being," Dr. Cooper says. " For the right patient, breast reconstruction can help to minimize the sense of loss felt after having a partial or total mastectomy."

Cathy's first consultation with Dr. Cooper was "instantly comforting". He wasn't the first plastic surgeon she had met with about reconstructive surgery. In fact, in the years following her partial mastectomy, she met with three other doctors. This time, however, Cathy says she was feeling more empowered and in a better state of mind. Breast reconstruction meant being ready to repair the physical and emotional scars left behind after cancer. For six years, Cathy had lived with discomfort where the scar stretched from her right breast, around her side to her back. Bras and a prosthesis were too painful to wear. Clothes hung off her and her self-esteem plummeted.

"I don't ever want to forget the cancer, but reconstruction meant coming full circle with my life," she says.

In April 2010, Dr. Cooper reconstructed Cathy's  breast. A few days after the surgery while Cathy was still recuperating in her hospital bed, Dr. Cooper gave her a new bra – the first she would be able to comfortably wear in more than six years. Cathy says he gave her much more. He gave her a new life.

"He made me feel whole again," she explains.

Health insurance covered Cathy's surgery. In 1998, The Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act mandated that group insurance plans cover reconstruction of a breast that was removed by mastectomy or surgery to make breasts symmetrical or balanced after a partial or full mastectomy.

Despite federal protection for women fighting breast cancer, Dr. Cooper says many studies suggest breast reconstructive surgery is underutilized, in part because some women are not aware of the options available to them. If you are considering breast reconstructive surgery, you have two main options: breast implants using a shell filled with silicone gel or saline, or "autologous" reconstruction using tissue from the abdomen, back or buttocks. Dr. Cooper performed an autologous latissimus myocutaneous flap reconstruction for Cathy, which uses muscle, fat, and skin from the back to shape the new breast.

"Everyone was fabulous through the entire process," Cathy says of her surgical experience at the hospital. "Everyone at Northwest Hospital takes their time with you. That is reassuring when you are going into a surgery after fighting cancer. The last place you want to be is in a hospital again. But it was like I was the only patient."

For Dr. Cooper, helping patients like Cathy makes his job worthwhile.

"It means a lot for me to be able to help women complete their journey in dealing with breast cancer," he says. "I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to help these patients improve their body image and self-esteem and see them close a difficult chapter in their lives."

For Cathy, closing that chapter meant arriving at some realizations about the life she had fought for and the life she was prepared to live after that fight. She became more physically fit, got her other health problems under control, and spent more time with her children. Today, she no longer deals with sickness. She isn't reminded of her cancer every day. Cathy is still buying bras but more importantly, she is leading a life she says is worth living.

"There is a big difference between just surviving and actually living," she says.

For more information on reconstructive surgery and cancer services at Northwest Hospital, visit www.nwhospital.org or www.seattlepacificsurgeons.com

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