Innovative breast cancer surgery one of the keys for survivorship

For Marie Plummer the words cancer and death were synonymous. She’d already lost her sister to the disease and so when she found a lump in her own breast she was terrified. “I thought, ‘It’s cancer – I’m dead’,” says Plummer.

The following week was a blur as Plummer underwent a series of tests each leading her closer to a diagnosis she feared would be the worst. When Plummer’s physician met her in his office the tears in his eyes confirmed her suspicion – it was cancer.

“That’s when I finally allowed myself to have a breakdown and immediately I wanted both my breasts off,” says Plummer. However, the lump, a 2.4 cm aggressive stage-two cancer, would first be treated with chemotherapy – a treatment which is available at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) where she works as a lab assistant in microbiology.

“When I found out I could have my treatment here at RVH, I felt like I had won the lottery – isn’t that crazy?” says Plummer. “I went through it fairly well. I lost my hair and forty pounds and I was always exhausted – it’s no picnic. I had pretty good spirits, but there were a few pity party days for sure.”

Yet, there was more bad news to come – chemotherapy was not enough. The next step would be radiation. Plummer opted out and went back to her first thought – double mastectomy.

“A double mastectomy gave me peace of mind so that I could calm down about getting breast cancer a second time. I am a huge worry wart and still to this day I stress about cancer rearing its ugly head somewhere else in my body,” says Plummer.   That decision led Plummer to RVH surgeon Dr. Renee Hanrahan, where she got the first piece of good news in a long time. Dr. Hanrahan can perform both cancer and reconstructive surgery during the same procedure. RVH has made it a priority to drive clinical excellence and offering this service to the women of Simcoe Muskoka is one way to take advantage of RVH’s expertise and technology to provide the best care close to home

It meant Dr. Hanrahan could perform Plummer’s double mastectomy and then immediately reconstruct her breasts, a procedure that requires the expertise of a cancer surgeon and then a plastic surgeon. Dr. Hanrahan is trained in both disciplines. In fact, it was a friend’s illness that gave her the motivation to pursue this unique specialty.   “Watching my best friend go through her cancer journey taught me more than any text book. I love what I do and I’m fully supported by RVH,” says Dr. Hanrahan. “My training allows me to remove tumors, perform lumpectomies and mastectomies and reconstruct the breasts, all while following strict cancer standards.”

And if Dr. Hanrahan does need the help of a plastic surgeon for reconstruction that requires the use of tissue from the woman’s back or stomach, she calls on the expertise of Dr. Agnes Hassa, RVH plastic surgeon.

“Eighty-seven per cent of women will survive this disease but they don’t need to be reminded of it every time they look in the mirror,” says Dr. Hanrahan. “This surgery is one of the keys for survivorship. It gives women immediate reconstruction and gets them past that phase where they are waiting for it to be done.”

Dr. Hanrahan says most women are eligible for some form of reconstructive surgery, however in some cases it is not suitable or safe.

“To have this procedure available here at RVH is phenomenal,” says Plummer. “Not only does having the double mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time cut down on subsequent surgeries, but it also allows women the opportunity to have their bodies repaired — to be as normal as they can be — after fighting breast cancer. It is not only the physical, but the mental aspect as well. Having the two procedures done at the same time is very critical to a woman’s recovery and well being.”