Special Needs    

Breaking breast cancer



A Hudson Valley mother tackles breast cancer head on

I immediately think of my children. What, if anything, will they remember of me if I die young?

 



Heather Labruna hugs her two kids, Fiorello, 4, and Nora, 1.5. For two years, Labruna has been documenting her journey from diagnosis to chemotherapy to breast reconstruction on her blog, Breaking Breast Cancer.

We asked her to share with us what it was like when she was first diagnosed with cancer back in 2013.

Photo by Tamme Stitt Photography



10:30 a.m., October 2

The phone rings and I nearly jump out of my skin. The caller ID says it’s my breast surgeon.

“So, I have the results of all three of your biopsies back,” she says.

Then there’s the pause, the kind of pause that has launched a million cancer diagnoses.

“The results were not good,” she finally continues. “Quite frankly, I’m floored. You have early stage breast cancer, or DCIS, in the left breast and invasive cancer in the right.”

I fight to keep it together. Off the phone, I tearfully relay the news to my husband.


Heather’s husband, Sal, shaved her head in mid-January. 

“Me and Sal the Barber (doesn't every town have one?)”



I am 36 years old and facing my own mortality.

Unlike the doctor, I am not completely shocked. My father’s mother, his aunt and his sister all died of breast cancer, and I always had the feeling I’d eventually face breast cancer, too. But I wasn’t prepared for it this early.

I immediately think of my children. What, if anything, will they remember of me if I die young? My 4-year-old son, Fiorello, would only have vague recollections of the “yum-yum kisses” I like to plant on his belly. Nora, my feisty 18-month old, would only know me from photographs. My husband would be a young widower with two kids to raise on his own.

No, I can’t die yet.

There’s only one thing to do: It’s time to put on my big-girl panties and tackle this head on.


Fiorello, 4, gives his mom a thorough exam. “He picks his nose, he cuts our appointments short to ‘go potty’ and his patellar reflex exams are brutal,” she says. “I think I need a new doctor.”





October 5

We haven’t mentioned the words “breast cancer” to Fiorello, but at some point he must have heard us talking and put two and two together with his toddler math. 

He catches me absentmindedly adjusting my sports bra, my breasts still sore from the biopsies.

“Is your boobie OK?” he asks suspiciously. Without waiting for an answer, he orders, “Come upstairs to my office.”

He first shows me to his “waiting room,” which was my bedroom, and orders me to sit there till he’s ready. Two seconds later he comes back, leads me to his “office” (his bedroom) and takes out his toy doctor’s kit. He checks my blood pressure, puts the stethoscope to my heart and gives me a shot.

“Your boobies are sick,” he says after much deliberation. “We need to change them.”

He informs me that he could do the procedure. When I tell him that Mommy has doctors all picked out, he seems concerned that it won’t be him doing the surgery.

I kiss his head and tell him that if our insurance doesn’t come through, he’s my go-to guy.

October 7

It’s my first meeting with the plastic surgeon, Dr. R. Michael Koch. Dr. Koch is a native of Great Britain and he’s got a soft, calming accent — a kind of “hippie-painter-Bob-Ross-meets-the-royal-family.”

We painstakingly go over options for immediate reconstruction following a double mastectomy. Given my age, I’m not keen on implants. The shelf life for those is about 10 years. I hope to have a long life ahead of me and I don’t relish the thought of having to trade them in every decade. I instead choose the procedure that uses your own abdominal tissue — essentially using the fat and tissue from a tummy tuck — to recreate the breasts. Nobody has to twist my arm to give up my stubborn postpartum pouch in favor of new, perkier breasts. Though this procedure has a lot more recovery time up front, the results are more natural and I won’t need as much follow-up care.

October 25

I get the call I was expecting. I’m BRCA2 positive.

BRCA genes help suppress cancer when they work properly. Mine, however, tested positive for a mutation. Those of us born with a BRCA2 mutation have almost a 50/50 shot of developing breast cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, and up to 17 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

I feel like I should be apologizing to my kids. “Sorry, but Mommy may have given you a horrible gene that will affect you for the rest of your life. Just one more thing to yell at her about when you’re a teenager!”

Risk factors for developing breast cancer

November 11

In the wee hours of the morning, I walk into Hudson Valley Hospital in Cortlandt Manor with the fears of a big surgery in the pit of my stomach and the overwhelming support of friends and family at my back. When I find out my kids are too young to visit me in the hospital, I fight the sudden urge to flee.

Much of what happens next is a blur: There’s a meeting with the radiologist, who places radioactive tracers to help the breast surgeons find the lymph nodes needed for biopsy, and the final consultation with Dr. Koch. I bet my husband that I can get the doctor to say something sufficiently British. After some coaxing, Dr. Koch rewards me with, “Yes, I will give you a capital set of knockers.” Score!

I don’t remember much after my last pre-surgery visitor: the anesthesiologist. More than 8 hours later, I’m waking up in the recovery room and then finally being wheeled up to the ICU. During my time in the hospital, I am monitored every one to two hours for blood clots using Doppler. The sound of healthy blood flow in my new breasts sounds like the beating of a baby’s heart. And it’s just as comforting. It means “the new girls” are alive and well.



Heather prepares for her first chemotherapy treatment on December 31. “If your first chemo treatment has to be on New Year's Eve, you do it up right.”



Today

The surgery was just one part of the journey. Though my tumors were early stage (0 and 1 for the left and right breasts, respectively), they were aggressive and there is the chance that some cancer cells escaped. So, I’m currently undergoing 16 weeks of chemotherapy. I’ll also be having my ovaries removed to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer.

It’s another crazy year ahead. But it’s another year that I’m alive.

Click here for Heather's advice on early testing

Heather Labruna lives in Goshen with her husband and two children. Follow her ongoing journey on her blog, Breaking Breast Cancer