Joining FORCES is the FORCE newsletter with news, views and supportive information for individuals concerned about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.
by Debbie Horowitz
I’ve never been a stranger to breast cancer. I lost my grandmother when I was a baby and lost my mother before I blew the candles out on my 10th birthday cake. Today, I am what they call a “survivor” of this disease, but I like to think of myself as an advocate.
Because I am Jewish and have a very strong family history of breast cancer, I began having mammograms in my late 20s. I did not feel the need to be gene tested at that time, but I knew self-exams would be critical for me. Early on, gene testing scared me. I feared that if I tested positive for a mutation at so young an age, I would be facing too many decisions that I would be unable to handle at that particular point in my life. I was sure, however, that if I ever was diagnosed with breast cancer, I would have a double mastectomy to reduce my worry about a second cancer in either breast.
In June 2004, I was newly engaged and busy planning my wedding. One evening in the shower I felt a lump in my breast. Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with unilateral Stage I breast cancer. At 32 years young, I found myself on the same path my mother and grandmother had walked before me.
Soon I was spending more time with doctors, specialists, and surgeons than my family or fiancée. I decided to have a double mastectomy (just as I had thought years earlier) followed by reconstructive surgery; this seemed like the right choice. It was a terrible time. I was reeling from the trauma and confusion of what was happening, and was not able to get a clear picture of what the reconstruction process would be like. This became my focus—some might even say my obsession. As a young woman and a bride-to-be I desperately wanted and needed photographs and literature about women my age going through reconstruction, but I could find no such resources.
The mastectomy, the damage to my body that cancer had wreaked, happened quickly. The reconstruction—putting the pieces back together—was a much longer process. What I found to guide me through the process were online before-and-after pictures, although they hardly captured the long journey that was reconstruction. For me, it was a harrowing and painful eight months. Among the many thoughts then going through my head were questions about other young women who were blindly fighting the same battle. I did not know it then, but not having pictures beforehand to help me cope with all that would lie ahead of me ended up motivating me in a way I had never imagined possible.
In the three years since my diagnosis, I’ve had my dream wedding and gave birth to a beautiful daughter. I also learned that I am BRCA1 positive, so my decision to remove both breasts was a reasonable one. I look to the future with a new sense of self, empowered by my victory over cancer.
Debbie developed “Myself: Together Again,” a step-by-step picture guide of breast reconstruction with implants, from her own experience. “I took the anxiety and fear that practically paralyzed me during the initial phase of my cancer and decided to focus that energy into a picture booklet for the women who will face this disease after me,” she said.
Throughout her reconstruction she posed for photographs so that other women might be able to see the actual implant reconstruction process. “It was terrifying to pose for pictures at a time when my body was being cut and manipulated, but I tried not to focus on my fear. Instead, I concentrated on how strongly I felt about women in my situation having a guide for the process. That is what pushed me through my battle with cancer—knowing I could do something about that.”
Of her mastectomy and reconstruction experience, Debbie says, “I have heard it said that you never know what you are capable of until you are faced with it. This is definitely true for me. The strangest part of all is that I wouldn’t trade who I am today to be back to who I was before the cancer. I like this new self, inside and out.”
Visit myselftogetheragain.org for more information about Debbie or the booklet.