In 2019, when I was 38 years old, I decided to get a preventative mastectomy.
I didn’t come to my decision overnight, though. My family history played a huge part. My mother had passed away at age 68 after a three-year battle with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer exactly a year prior. Her youngest sister died from breast cancer in her early 30s. And my maternal grandmother had it as well, though she did not die from it. Needless to say, my risk level was pretty high.
I tried to exhaust all other options before landing on a mastectomy. First, my doctor put me on a high-risk detection plan where, every six months, I would alternate mammograms and ultrasounds just to try to catch anything early if it popped up. Before my mom died, I also underwent genetic testing. I didn’t test positive for any of the major and more well-known mutations like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 (which, according to the National Cancer Institute, carry a 55 percent to 72 percent and 45 percent to 69 percent risk of developing breast cancer by 70 to 80 years of age, respectively). After my mom passed away, my doctors decided they wanted to bring me in for more genetic testing, and I tested positive for the RAD50 genetic mutation in July 2018, which is a newer mutation that is also linked to breast and ovarian cancer.
While the RAD50 mutation hasn’t been shown to have an increased risk of developing breast cancer, research suggests survival outcomes are less favorable in cancer patients who have the mutation than in those who don’t. And after I had a scare with a mass found during one of my routine mammograms that turned out to be benign, I decided I wanted to have a prophylactic, or preventative, double mastectomy just to reduce my chances of breast cancer.
When I met with my primary care physician and a general surgeon for a mastectomy consultation, they immediately wanted to send me to a handful of plastic surgeons to discuss implants and other reconstruction options. However, I was pretty adamant that I wanted to just go flat, which may have been a surprise to many since I’d spent much of my life in forward-facing roles working as a TV anchor for the FOX affiliate in Hawaii for seven years and was a former Miss Hawaii in the 2004 Miss America Pageant. I was shocked to receive so much pushback from my medical team especially, while most of my friends and family were all very supportive. I had very large, full D-cup-size breasts, and a lot of the doctors voiced their concerns that I might be traumatized by the transition.
By the time my surgery came around, I’d interviewed several breast cancer survivors and mastectomy patients from around the world about the various types of reconstruction they elected to have. Some had extreme adverse reactions to their implants that took years to recover from, while others wound up with leaking implants. Others just didn’t sound happy with the results. All of those conversations pretty much solidified my decision about whether or not to get implants. Plus, I’m a very active person who likes to hike, surf, and go to the beach — and I really liked the idea of having my surgery and being sewn up so I could just move on with my life.
So in April 2019, I had the mastectomy. I was very nervous — I’d never been in the hospital overnight before and never had any type of surgery. Fortunately, this surgery only took five hours, and I only had to stay in the hospital one night. The morning after my surgery, I woke up in the hospital, looked down, and saw my incisions for the first time, which were surprisingly clean and not bloody. You kind of prepare yourself for the worst, but the sewn-together incisions where my breasts had been were actually somewhat beautiful. That’s not to say there wasn’t any shock. To look down and not have breasts anymore is something you have to get used to. But one thing that helped was that the surgeons had positioned the drains in my chest (used to collect fluid and blood) in the area where my nipples would’ve been. So it wasn’t as off-putting as having to look at my nipple-less chest.
That same morning, the doctor came to check on me before clearing me for discharge, and from there, the healing process took about three months. I was lucky in that I didn’t have much pain, especially after I got the drains taken out. I actually think I would have healed much sooner if I hadn’t dealt with a series of infections after getting jacuzzi water splashed onto my incisions while on a cruise ship a month post-op.
However, once I was fully healed from the surgery, I immediately felt a sense of confidence and relief. I was happy to see that not much changed about my life or the way other people viewed me. Most people didn’t even notice that I didn’t have breasts anymore. Sometimes they’d ask if I’d lost weight, but I’d say 90 percent of the time, they didn’t notice anything. And I was just happy to be given another chance at a long and healthy life.
For the most part, I don’t have to wear bras anymore, but sometimes I will if it makes me feel more confident to add a little shape to certain outfits. Sometimes I’ll post videos of my outfit selections and I’ll get comments from breast cancer patients and other smaller-chested women who are inspired by what I’m sharing. And in those moments, I feel a great sense of gratitude to be able to offer guidance and assistance. I never envisioned myself being able to help others in this capacity, and it’s heartwarming to be able to share tips and tricks with others who are looking for inspiration.
I’ve also shared my story on my blog and YouTube channel, something my husband and biggest cheerleader encouraged me to do. I’ve had women from their early 20s to 89 years old reach out to tell me how grateful they are and how much they appreciate what I’ve done and what I’ve shared. A few husbands have shared their appreciation as caregivers, too, as they were seeking inspiration and an outlet to find resources. All of that feedback has been incredible.
I’ve also been able to turn some of that positive energy on social media into monetary support for local nonprofits, like Hawaii Hospice and Breast Cancer Hawaii, and used my career in public relations to facilitate several fundraising initiatives. Overall, sharing my story has been a joyful experience. I’ve had some people say my decision to have a mastectomy with no reconstruction when I didn’t even have cancer was an extreme choice — and I do wish more healthcare providers would advocate for going flat as an option. But in my heart and in my soul, I felt like I did what was best for me, and I don’t regret it at all. It’s important for others to know that your breast cancer journey is your own — and whether you opt for reconstruction or not, your choice is valid simply because it’s yours.
Ultimately, I feel that I had to do what I had to do to try to save my life. Having a mastectomy and going flat has been empowering. It’s helped me through the healing process and to uncover a little bit of my own purpose being able to support, uplift, and offer advice to other people who might be going through the same thing.
— As told to Emilia Benton
Image Source: Courtesy of Olena Heu