Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day

By Linda Vuolo

October 18, 2023

This event was very helpful and educational. Banner MD Anderson provided space for several BRA-related vendors to set up their information and share with visitors who ranged from patients and supporters to medical staff. They also shared information from some of their physicians as well as physical therapists and patient testimonials. Our own Linda Vuolo shared her reconstruction experience at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center (BMDACC). Though non-technical, Linda’s advice is a culmination of her experience through her breast cancer/reconstruction journey. Always get as much information as you can before making a decision for treatment.  Here is her testimonial.

My name is Linda Vuolo.  Thank you for allowing me to tell my story and 4 lessons that I learned. September 25, 2019 – That is when I heard the words ‘You have breast cancer’. Wait what? Me?

  • At that moment, the conveyor belt of treatment began, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
  • What now? Check with Dr. Google? Oh no, BADDDDD idea. It made me think that I was not going to last through the night.  I didn’t even know what I was looking up!

Lesson 1: Don’t Check Dr. Google!!

  • You can check reputable breast cancer sites when you know what you are looking for, but no aimless scrolling.
  • I had one biopsy and was diagnosed with DCIS in the left breast. The plan was for a lumpectomy and radiation or chemotherapy.
  • But then an eagle-eyed doctor on the MD Anderson breast team suggested that I be checked again at the Banner Imaging Center.
  • I was sitting in a dark room with my husband and Dr. Johnston looking at my mammogram images.
  • The ONLY sentence I remember was Dr. Johnston saying ‘We need to do a biopsy in another area. This is the difference between a lumpectomy and a mastectomy.’ WHAT?
  • Sure enough, there was another area in the same breast with IDC, so I needed to have a mastectomy.
  • I could not have done this without leaning heavily on my loving husband Gregg. I hardly remember anything about that day.

Lesson 2: If you can, have someone with you to listen and HEAR what is being said and to take notes

  • The conveyor belt was now going full steam ahead:
  • The conveyor belt doctors say:

When you have to have a mastectomy, this is what we do…

  • Remove your breast
  • Put in an expander (the worst invention, ever)
  • Then plop in an implant and you’re good to go
  • I consider myself a reasonably intelligent woman, but I could not function…I tried Dr. Google again, but still did not understand what was happening.  I thought, surely these doctors (not at MD Anderson) knew what they were doing.
  • BTW, my cancer came at a bad time as BMDACC did not have a fully staffed plastic surgery department, so I was sent to an outside surgeon.
  • This plastic surgeon said he would answer any of my questions, but I didn’t even know what questions to ask.
  • I told him that I saw something online about using my own tissue…he said I was not a candidate for that type of surgery. Really, have you looked at me? I have been saving up this tissue all my life!!
    • What he meant to say was ‘I am not a qualified micro surgeon which is what was needed to perform this delicate procedure’.
  • I did not know that I had a choice of staying flat, doing flap surgery, or PAUSING until I understood what was happening to me.
  • I heard: ‘If you want to pursue any other options, we will have to stop the conveyor belt and take you offline.’
  • Thinking I was making a choice about my survival, I hopped on the conveyor belt even though my GUT was telling me that there was something wrong here.
  • After the expander was placed and I had my first fill (I still did not understand what was happening), they scheduled the replacement surgery 90 days after my mastectomy. Really, you know that I will be ready?
    • Yes, that is the way we do it. We will do a reduction and lift on the healthy breast, then you can go on with your life as a survivor.

Needless to say, the conveyor belt won

  • After the exchange surgery (replacing the expander with the implant), I felt like a freak. The implant was tooooo big and the reduction of my non-cancerous breast was too aggressive and therefore too small.
  • The doctor’s office notes that I had access to said “Patient expected perfection”.
  • I never went back to him.

Lesson 3: LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. If you don’t have a good feeling or feel you and the Dr are not a good match, MOVE ON. There are plenty of other qualified surgeons to choose from. It was bad enough having cancer, but I was sooo depressed and felt disfigured.

Enter Dr. Michael Miller at BMDACC. He had just arrived to start building his plastics team.

  • I tearfully shared my saga and he said, ‘I can fix you’. Woohoo!!  More tears…this time of joy!
  • Miller told me that he could do a flap surgery on me and would use an implant on my natural breast to get them more even.
  • He walked me through every detail about how it would go, and explained that I would need several surgeries, but he would only stop when I was happy and satisfied.

Lesson 4: Do not stop until you are satisfied. There are many qualified surgeons out there who do not subscribe to the conveyor belt methodology.

  • Miller has built a strong team of surgeons and support staff who are focused on listening to and supporting their patients. In fact, I will say the same for all of the staff that I have encountered at BMDACC.
  • I feel that they saved my life…not only physically, but from the deep depression I was feeling.

 So, let’s review:

  • Lesson 1: Do not use Dr. Google
  • Lesson 2: Keep a loved one at your side
  • Lesson 3: Listen to your gut … you have good instincts
  • Lesson 4: Don’t stop until you are satisfied

Take a breath…ugly cry when you need to let it out, then pull up your big girl panties and take control of your treatment.

You CAN do this.

Thank you for listening to my story.”