Reconstruction procedure gives breast cancer survivor new outlook

Ten years ago, when Judy Howell was fundraising for the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor College of Medicine, she had no idea that one day she would be one of the patients needing and using the medical services.

It all started in the fall of 2018, when Judy missed her routine mammogram appointment for the first time in several years.

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Same-day testing is offered at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center following an abnormal mammography interpretation.

“My mother-in-law was very ill, so we were in the hospital taking turns sitting with her. When I got the notification that my mammogram was overdue, I just kind of put it aside and told myself that as soon as she was more stable, I would take care of it,” Judy said. “December flew by and I started noticing pain under the inner portion of my right breast. It felt like broken shards of glass under my skin.”

Despite the sharp pain, Judy wasn’t too worried since there was no lump or cyst – a tell-tale sign of breast cancer. “That whole period of time was very stressful, so I ignored the pain.”

As Judy entered a job transition, she again put off her appointment until mid-February. By the time she went in for her 3D mammogram at Baylor, the pain had become constant.

“I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t normal. This doesn’t feel right.’ The pain wasn’t going away. Once I saw my scan, I knew it was cancer. Of course they did an ultrasound to confirm, but I knew.”

In a way, Judy had been preparing for this moment for a long time. Thirty-five years earlier, Judy’s sister died of breast cancer after a difficult three-year battle with the disease. Additionally, three of Judy’s aunts had been previously diagnosed with breast cancer.

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Judy Howell

After her initial diagnosis, Judy had received 19 different genetic tests for breast cancer – all of which came back negative.

Judy was put on a regimen of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. To make sure that there were no errant cells or future spreading, surgery was recommended as a supplementary course of treatment.

She met with Dr. Alastair Thompson, section chief of breast surgery at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I was pleased with how kind Dr. Thompson was in his approach,” she said. “He sat down and talked with me, not at me.”

Thompson explained Judy’s options, which included a double mastectomy with a breast reconstruction in the same surgery.

In a 10-hour surgery, Thompson performed the mastectomy and Dr. Marco Maricevich, a plastic surgeon at Baylor, completed a DIEP flap procedure.

“I am lucky to have found Dr. Maricevich. For me, it made all the difference to have someone who was a caring human being as well as a talented surgeon.”

The DIEP flap procedure is a popular option for women undergoing a mastectomy. It is a microsurgical technique that involves taking fat from the abdomen to reconstruct the breast. Essentially, the DIEP flap has the secondary benefit of an aesthetically pleasing abdominal wall donor site area, like a tummy tuck.

“When I got home and was able to look at the incisions, I was surprised. They were much smaller than I thought they would be, and the recovery was not painful. Everything feels very natural and I am happy with the results.”

Since the surgery, Judy has been able to go back to living her normal life and now dedicates her time to sharing her story with other women who are facing a breast cancer diagnosis.

“There are so many good treatment options available these days – options that were not available for my sister 35 years ago. Dr. Kent Osborne, my oncologist, and Dr. Thompson saved my life. Dr. Maricevich restored my quality of life.”

Dr. Osborne is the director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center and Dr. Thompson is co-director of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the Breast Care Center at Baylor or call (713) 798-1999.

See information about breast cancer surgery options.

-By Debbie Sugarbaker, editor in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor

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