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When a Breast Cancer Surgeon Undergoes a Double Mastectomy
Comments () | Published July 5, 2011

Teal (right) and her best friend, Laurie Turney—who has been cancer-free for five years—were eager to be a part of this year’s Race for the Cure. Photograph by Erik Uecke

The patient sitting in Teal’s office wants to know every detail. She’s a week away from having a prophylactic bilateral nipple-sparing mastectomy, the same surgery Teal had. This time, Teal will be operating. The woman’s mother and grandmother died of breast cancer, and a few months ago she tested positive for a BRCA2 mutation, putting her at increased risk.

The patient, who’s in her sixties, has lots of questions: What will the incision look like? How long do the drains stay in? What kind of bras work best after surgery?

“There’s one I really liked, and I’m still sleeping in it,” Teal tells her. “It’s the Amoena surgery camisole. It’s got a zipper in the front, which is really nice, and there’s a little pouch for your drains.” She got the camisole from her mom, who’d used it when she was recovering. “Nordstrom at Pentagon City has a whole mastectomy section. That’s where I went with my mother.”

Teal was surprised at how much was out there for women who’d had cancer surgery. When she went to Victoria’s Secret and told the salesclerk she was a size A but was going to end up a B after reconstruction, the woman didn’t bat at eye. They must hear that a lot, Teal thought.
She’d always been able to give her mastectomy patients advice, but that was different. Now she could tell a woman how it felt to look in the mirror after a shower and see a part of herself she couldn’t feel.

“You will continue to have good days and bad ones,” she wrote in a guide for her patients about what to expect. “When it is a bad day, do not push it. Lie in bed with your computer or a magazine or a good movie and just take it easy. The next day will be better, I promise.”

Teal’s husband had taken photos of her every few days so she could show patients what the recovery process was like.

“Here’s week one, post-op,” Teal tells the patient in her office. “See? This nipple is having a little trouble.” She had a complication after surgery called mastectomy flap necrosis—the tissue around the nipple blistered and became discolored because of insufficient blood supply. This is not uncommon in a nipple-sparing procedure, and she wants patients to know it can happen because it delays the healing process.

“So you go in, you come out, and you wake up how long after surgery?” the patient asks.

“I don’t remember the recovery room at all, though I was told by the nurse that I was very lucid,” Teal says. “Don’t have any visitors Tuesday night. You’ll want your husband there, just to sit with you, but you’re not really going to want anybody else.”

The patient started seeing Teal a few months ago after going to another breast surgeon for years. They clicked right away: The woman checked in to see how Teal’s mother was doing and sent her photos of her new puppy.

“It’s such a blessing that I found you,” she says to Teal. “I’m so happy you’re okay.”

“I’m glad it’s behind me,” Teal says. “I’m glad I did this. I think about what I watched my mom go through and . . . .”

“You don’t want to go through it,” the woman says. “I know. God, I know.”

Teal’s shirt reads: IN HONOR OF LAURIE, MY MOM, MY PATIENTS. Her white visor has one word on it: hope.

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“Isn’t it so weird that just last year we were talking about how lucky my mother was?” she says. She’s on mile two of the Race for the Cure, walking alongside her mom, Turney, and the colleague who performed her operation, Anita McSwain. Teal has already bumped into a patient.

Things were different when she did this race a year ago. Her mother had faced cancer once, not twice. Teal herself still had her breasts. Now she has silicone implants, and as good as they feel, there are moments that remind her they aren’t real, such as when she pushes a door open or turns her arms a certain way. But she’s happy with how they turned out: Turney keeps telling her how great her “new girls” look, the kind of thing only a best friend will say. A week after her final surgery, Teal put on a two-piece bathing suit and took her kids to the pool.

Both Turney and Teal’s mom are wearing pink breast-cancer-survivor shirts, along with thousands of others who’ve gathered on the Mall. Later, someone hands them survivor medals. “You deserve those,” Teal says.

As they near the end of the route, she links arms with Turney and the two of them do a little dance before walking across the finish line.

This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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Posted at 10:35 AM/ET, 07/05/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles