In August 2013, I tested positive for a BRCA genetic mutation, which increases the chances that I would develop breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Add that to a family history of aggressive breast cancer, and you have a recipe for constant worry and sleepless nights, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness.
In my conversations with other women like me, there was always a general sense of, "Whew, I made it another year" after each negative mammogram. That's psychologically draining and not a healthy way to live one's life. I wanted out of that stressful cycle, and fast, but I wasn't sure what my options were.
When I received my genetic testing results, my doctor looked me in the eyes and said: "Erika, you do realize, it's not if you get breast cancer, it's when?"
There are times in life when an awful moment writes chapters in your soul. News like that hits you so hard it leaves you numb. As the doctor's voice faded to insignificance, the details of the moment hardened in my memory: the vanilla smell of the room, the soft green paint color on the walls, the fringed silk pillows on the exam bed, the soft lavender robe I was wearing.
The doctor's words were a glaring confirmation that I must act. Even though I didn't know if insurance would cover any of the cost, I was going to find a way to rid my body of this ticking time bomb. I decided to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy.
Preparing for my mastectomy
I sought out a second and third opinion. In any major life decision, be it considering a career change, buying a home, applying for college, etc., it's always smart to seek additional advice and counsel.
With its main campus in driving distance from our home, and with the excellent outcome my own mother experienced there 20 years prior, MD Anderson was an easy choice for me. I felt it was a more comprehensive and reliable option.
It was a different experience than meeting in a private practice office. It was much less glamorous, but much more rigorous. I immediately felt the security afforded by a complete health care team working together efficiently and effectively. MD Anderson was a fine-tuned cancer-fighting machine.
My consultations were exceptionally informative and reassuring. The reconstructive surgeon was warm and caring, and thoroughly explained the process, even letting me hold the expanders and implants that might be used during my procedure. He went through all of my options for breast reconstruction, including the use of my own body tissue to 'build' a new breast and the use of implants. He also made himself fully accessible should my husband or I think of any more questions.
What to consider when choosing cancer care
There are many things to consider when choosing your medical care team, including proximity to your home and convenience, how your medical team will be set up and your financial situation.
Above all, you must choose what is right for you. That's right, you choose. You may have some limits on specific doctors or hospitals imposed by insurance, but by all means, interview and get comfortable with the doctors who comprise your medical team. Keep in mind that although bedside manner is important, a surgeon's qualifications, background, and experience are in my view just as, if not more, important for good health and recovery.
For me, a smooth and coordinated handoff between surgeons and a qualified medical facility are top priorities.
I'm not saying that this life-changing experience is ever convenient or easy, but if you can lessen your stress and reduce your logistical burdens, it is worthy of consideration. Ultimately, it is your good health that matters most.