Recently diagnosed with breast cancer, actress Christina Applegate hit the airwaves this morning looking beautiful, adding a new face to the mosaic of breast cancer patients that we see in our daily lives. Perhaps even when we look in the mirror ourselves. (You can watch her interview on ABC's Good Morning America here.) The 36-year-old bravely revealed that she had a double mastectomy three weeks ago to get rid of the tumor in one breast and to prevent future tumors in the other. (She had tested positive for the BRCA-1 breast cancer gene mutation and thus found out she had an 87 percent likelihood.)
I'm guessing her mother passed on the gene, since she also had breast cancer years earlier. Men, too, can pass on the gene—and can even inherit it, as my colleague Adam Voiland reported last year, putting them at higher risk of breast cancer. Applegate and other female gene carriers also have a 44 percent chance of developing ovarian cancer.Television writer Jessica Queller recently wrote about facing the devastating decision of whether to have her ovaries removed as well as her breasts, since doing so slashes cancer risk by more than 90 percent. Applegate revealed that she's planning to have breast reconstruction several months down the road, lightheartedly predicting that "I'm gonna have cute boobs till I'm 90."
While reconstruction surgery can certainly help restore the shape and look of natural breasts, many patients aren't prepared for either the recuperation involved or the procedure's limitations. As the American Cancer Society's website states: "Breast reconstruction restores the shape of the breasts but cannot restore your normal breast sensation. With time, the skin on the reconstructed breast can become more sensitive, but it will not give you the same kind of pleasure as before a mastectomy." After recently blogging about sex after breast cancer, I received a poignant E-mail from a cancer survivor's husband who spoke about how much he misses being able to give his wife the pleasure of his touch.
The ACS website does a great job of listing the realities of breast reconstruction (like the scarring and recuperation time) and the various types of procedures out there. It is, though, a bit outdated when it comes to suggesting the type of implant to get. Plastic surgeons to whom I spoke for a piece on silicone implants told me that they never use saline for reconstruction because they look like inflated water balloons if there's no surrounding breast tissue to tuck them under.
That said, Applegate has done a service by sharing her experience and expectations. In fact, it's amazing how far we've come from the days when women spoke of their "Big C" in hushed whispers if they had the courage to speak of it at all.