8 Breast Cancer Survivors Reveal Whether They Got Implants or Not -- & Why

breast cancerWhat would you do if you lost your breasts to breast cancer? The Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 guarantees insurance coverage for breast reconstruction surgery. But more than half of women opt out of it.

To get some insight into this very complex and deeply personal decision The Stir spoke with eight cancer survivors with very different stories.

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adrian mcclenny
I chose it because of my age

After her bilateral mastectomy Adrian McClenney underwent what's called a "tram flap," in which doctors remove fat from other parts of your body to recreate your breasts.

"I chose to do reconstruction surgery because of my age." McClenney says. She was 43 at the time and felt she could recover. "If I had been over 55, I would not have chosen reconstruction."

melanie young
I wanted my whole body again

Melanie Young, author of Getting Things Off My Chest: A Survivor's Guide to Staying Fearless & Fabulous in the Face of Breast Cancer for The Grace Project, chose reconstruction after her double mastectomy because "I wanted to have my whole body again."

She compares her silicone implants to 410 gummy bears, but says, "Reconstruction can be painful physically but emotionally healing. It's not perfect and it can sometimes be unsuccessful as I have seen with friends whose implants were rejected. I still have scar tissue and constant tugging around my breasts, which feel like stuffed, plush toes. But I am whole and symmetrical and love my shape."

gayle carson
My body looks like a road map

Gayle Carson is a three-time breast cancer survivor. She had one breast removed and replaced with an implant after her first bout of cancer. But 23 years later, that implant burst and she had the disease in her other breast.

This time, she decided not to get reconstructive surgery. After 16 operations, Carson says her body looked "like a blueprint or road map." But if she had to do it over, she says, "I would have had a double mastectomy in the beginning and reconstruction right away."

mary anne kouchut
Uncomfortable, but no regrets

Mary Anne Kochut twice battled the disease, the second one resulting in a mastectomy in 2012. "I chose to have the reconstruction process because I was uncomfortable wearing the prosthesis," she says. "They'd move and my clothes didn't fit right and I just felt mutilated and deformed when I looked in the mirror."

"I am cancer-free and feeling great physically," Kochut says. "However, I must share that I don't like the way the reconstruction feels. My chest is completely numb, and it feels like I'm wearing a very tight tank top. While the reconstruction looks great, I wish sometimes that the normal feeling would return, but that's highly unlikely." Still, she says, "I don't regret it and, given the alternatives, I would do it again."

More from The Stir: 8 Breast Cancer Survivors Reveal How It Felt the Moment They Heard the News

allison gryphon
I wanted to be 'me' again

Allison W. Gryphon, founder of cancer-fighting network The Why? Foundation, was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer at the age of 38 in April of 2011."I chose reconstruction because all I wanted to do was get the cancer out of my body and be 'me' again," Gryphon says. "It was part of feeling normal." Her diagnosis of cancer had made her feel out of control. "There were a lot of things I couldn't do to make myself feel better," she says. "But I could control my physical appearance."

Gryphon is happy with the outcome of her surgery now, but it took a while. "No one told me my breasts would be swollen for six months," she says. She was shocked at their size and had a bit of an identity crisis becasue she looked so different. Eventually the swelling went down. "Now I'm really happy, but I wish I'd known more about the process." 

donna hill
Reconstructive surgery regret

Donna W. Hill, author of the young adult novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill went along with reconstructive surgery, but had problems with her saline implants, from drainage issues to one actually slipping down her body.

Not only that, Hill, who is blind, says the implants never felt right. "I had a sensation all along I wasn't comfortable with," she says. "It wasn't exactly pain, but it was an itchy, annoying sensation I couldn't ignore." So when doctors found a new lump, she had both implants permanently removed. She says if she'd known she had cancer in both breasts to begin with, she never would have gotten implants.

sandy bobal-zuniga
Better, but not the same

Sandy Bobal-Zuniga is a breast cancer survivor who chose reconstruction after her single mastectomy. "I knew that at 41, I wasn't emotionally ready to not have breasts," she says. "I was lucky enough to be able to do a nipple-sparing surgery first, and therefore my breast is a close to looking real as possible." But it's still not the same, she admits. Having a breast replaced "helps with the shock of looking in the mirror. However, it does not feel like the real one and there is no going back after the surgery." Bobal-Zuniga now helps other cancer patients through her website, My Personal Breast Cancer Journey.

christine ajai
I just wanted to get my life back

Mother of four Christine Ajayi chose not to have reconstructive surgery because treating her stage-three cancer would be traumatic enough on its own."I just wanted to get my life back in order as soon as possible," she says. She wears breast forms now. Surprisingly, losing her hair affected her more emotionally than losing a breast. "To be honest, trying to get my hair to grow back bothers me way more because I've always had really long hair." But she says she has no regrets about skipping reconstructive surgery.

We'd like to express our gratitude to these women for sharing their stories and hope they'll be helpful to other women who have to ponder this difficult choice.

Have you ever been in this position yourself or had a close friend or loved one who had to make the decision? What happened?

Image © iStock.com/AtnoYdur

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