Meet Cassileth Plastic Surgery's courageous patients who are sharing their amazing stories of battling with breast cancer—as well as the healing reconstruction that came after, with the help of Dr. Lisa Cassileth.
Victoria lost her mother to breast cancer. She subsequently tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was determined to not let cancer control her life. Rather than undergo the risks of having a lumpectomy, Victoria chose have a one-stage breast reconstruction with Dr. Lisa Cassileth. She wants to share her personal story with women everywhere to encourage them to take matters into their own hands: Read more +
"My breasts are attached to me—I am not attached to my breasts." This is what I kept telling myself after my cancer diagnosis at 37 years old. At that point, I knew that my breasts had to be removed. After losing my mother to breast cancer a year prior to my diagnosis, along with testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, I was not willing to take the chance that a lumpectomy might be sufficient. Working as a professional television producer, I am dedicated to my job round-the-clock, and I was not going to let the C word "produce" me.
With that said, I immediately began exploring my options. Initially, I sat down with a plastic surgeon who explained to me what a double mastectomy would entail. I do not recall the encounter with the surgeon well, because halfway through the consultation I started to feel nauseous. I remember words like "tissue expanders, pain, scarring, long recovery, and multiple surgeries." After hearing all the graphic details, I wanted to run for the hills! After my consultation, I started to feel like the C word was gaining more control than ever, at which point I began questioning my decision to have the double mastectomy at all. I was terrified. In an effort to take back control, I had to remind myself that knowledge is power and there has to be other options out there. I wanted the surgery, but I did not want to come out looking like a "road map." That's when a dear friend of mine told me about Dr. Lisa Cassileth.
I fell in love with Dr. Cassileth the moment I met her. She was honest, genuine, and she was very knowledgeable! The idea of doing this surgery all in one step and still looking good felt like a heavy weight had lifted off my shoulders. When I saw the before and after pictures of her patients, I knew this was the right choice. Needless to say, the surgery was successful, and I am beyond happy with the results. It is truly a miracle.
My first wish is a cure for cancer. My second wish is for women everywhere to know that this amazing surgery is an option. Thank you, Dr. Cassileth, for putting me back together better than ever!
Since her first visit to our office in March 2008, Alice has never ceased to amaze us with her drive, determination, optimism, and—above all—her courage after dealing with a life altering experience at such a young age. Her accomplishments are so many and so valuable, we asked Alice to tell us her story: Read more +
Before cancer, I was a workaholic, attached to the accomplishments I could accumulate. I had been an entrepreneur since I was 19 years old and wanted to be rich and well known. I woke up at 4 a.m. each morning, was on the phone with the UK or NY by 5 a.m., and didn't stop until my brain stopped functioning. I said yes to everyone and everything, so I was involved in a number of charities and juggled many clients along with a great deal of relationships, many of which I hardly ever saw because I was "too busy," to even answer phone calls. I was the hamster in the ball, running faster and faster into the future, not living in the present. At the beginning of 2008, I made a vision board with my goals for the year. At the top, I wrote: Receive Love. Be a woman of grace, modesty and poise. I had no idea at the time that cancer would catalyze me to achieve exactly what I said I wanted.
In the past, I would have isolated myself from everyone when I was diagnosed. Instead, I became open and vulnerable. I accepted meals, rides, favors, and love. For the first time in my life, I felt how loved I am. Every family member, every friend, every old neighbor from my childhood, every colleague sent cards, letters, and gifts. I spent my first chemotherapy session writing thank you notes to them, focusing on gratitude rather than my fear of side effects that were soon to follow.
After surgery, my mind wanted to do one thing and my body another. I realized that was probably always the case. I have slowed down considerably, dropping my corporate work hours from 80-hour work weeks to 50 hours per month! I am learning to manage my energy and listen to my body's needs. I tell people when I am at my limit, giving up the embarrassment that I am weak or a failure. I spend the rest of my time on the nonprofit I started, blogging about my journey on the Huffington Post, playing with my dogs, and spending ample time with my loved ones. I am enjoying living in the present like never before!
Cancer brings out the best and worst in people. I stared my worst in the face and accepted that the darkness that stared back was as much a part of me as the best. I could no longer hate the aspects of myself I spent the last 31 years judging and criticizing. I love all of me for the first time. Loving myself has given me a greater capacity to love others. I no longer try to manipulate what others think of me. I took my mask off. And when I did, I saw my truth: I am truly on this earth to make a difference for my loved ones and my community as a woman of grace.
I started the My Vision Foundation three weeks into my diagnosis. Cancer made me realize that my life calling was to become a social entrepreneur. The foundation was established to provide progressive programs to help young women heal emotionally from being diagnosed with cancer through nude, partial nude, or clothed photography sessions. We also provide fertility scholarships so young women may freeze embryos or eggs to preserve their future as a mother.
We held our first fundraiser on April 17, four days before my surgery. One-hundred people came out to debut our plans, helping us raise our first $25,000. We honored our first cancer recipient of the photography sessions and gave out our first Visionary Award to my fertility specialist for giving hope to so many young women with cancer. In four short months, during which time I had surgery and began chemotherapy, we raised almost $100,000. Additionally, we secured four corporate sponsors, were gifted an office space, and were honored to be featured in three publications. The foundation held both West and East Coast debut events, with more events in the works.
Perhaps the most amazing moment for us was when a team of 20 My Vision supporters crossed the finish line at the Race for the Cure in Washington, DC, June 7—just 10 days after my first chemotherapy infusion. Our banner listed my mother and me as cancer survivors, following us across the finish line as we held hands, forever connected by the same disease. By September, we had a national database of photographers, all who have been prescreened, to provide pre-menopausal cancer patients with life-changing photography sessions all over the country. By October, we had raised $1 million to financially aid young women who want to preserve their fertility. Please check out my non-profit organization: fertileaction.org.
Mary Beth, a professional photographer, met Dr. Cassileth's patient Alice C through a mutual friend. About two weeks after they met, Mary Beth was diagnosed with breast cancer. Similar to Alice, Mary Beth did not want to have a lumpectomy and risk the possibility that her cancer might return, so she opted to have one-stage breast reconstruction with Dr. Cassileth . Read more +
"Why am I holding on to these?" she said to herself after catching a glimpse of her aging breasts in the mirror. She visited a few different plastic surgeons in search of some options for breast reconstruction. They only offered the two-stage standard procedure.
"I was so devastated I would have to go through two surgeries and tissue expanders," she said. "It was a miracle that I met Alice and found out about Dr. Cassileth."
Alice urged Mary Beth to meet with Dr. Cassileth and even joined her at the consultation. Alice showed her breasts to Mary Beth during the consult. They looked so natural and perfect. Mary Beth, an artist herself, admired Dr. Cassileth's work. Mary Beth was also drawn to Dr. Cassileth's energy and frank honesty. When Mary Beth returned to her breast specialist providers, she told them about the one-stage immediate reconstruction.
"They didn't even know about what Dr. Cassileth is doing, and they're only 10 miles down the road," she said. "This is the best-kept secret for women."
One of the plastic surgeons said that he could place standard implants in one surgery but, to add insult to injury, he could only make her smaller. Needless to say, Mary Beth changed her providers so that she could get her mastectomy and reconstruction in one surgery with Dr. Cassileth. The oncologist Dr. Cassileth works with turned out to be Christina Applegate's.
"They are rock stars," Mary Beth said. "Dr. Cassileth is a perfectionist."
A few months after her surgery, her sister in Idaho was diagnosed with breast cancer. Of course it was devastating, but she had a rock star team to care for her younger sister. In telling her story, she hopes more women can learn about this one-stage breast reconstruction option.
"Before my surgery, I was insecure about my breasts," she said. "Today, I'm confident and no longer worried about the cancer coming back."
Amanda's breast cancer diagnosis at 34 years old took her by surprise. As a professional designer and singer, Amanda did not allow this condition to devastate her life. She attributes what she deemed a "minor inconvenience" to her skilled breast reconstructive surgeon, Dr. Lisa Cassileth. Read more +
The day after Amanda's double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she started working remotely in her hospital room. As a business owner, she has few days off. Two weeks after her surgery, she slipped into a low-cut dress, stepped out onto the stage, into the spotlight, and sang in soulful celebration to a full house of 8,000 people in San Pedro, California.
"I was singing my heart out, bringing down the house," she said. "It was the most invigorating experience, the best I've ever sang."
She's not candy-coating breast cancer. Facing a breast cancer diagnosis, the grim shadow of death, and losing her breasts were traumatic. In the interim period after her diagnosis and the two months it took to get an appointment with the oncologist her health insurance covered, her boyfriend did research online to find the best breast cancer specialists at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. The lump was small enough to be adequately removed with a lumpectomy followed by radiation and chemotherapy. She remembered having "what if" conversations with friends about breast cancer, and she was always the one to say in her English accent, "I'd just take the whole lot off." Faced with the reality of breast cancer, the option of lumpectomy and saving one breast prompted an earlier realization.
"Do I have any other options?" Amanda asked the oncologist who said, dismissively, "a double mastectomy." That's when she was fortunate enough to have been referred to Dr. Cassileth, breast reconstruction specialist with Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
"I instantly trusted Lisa," Amanda said about their first meeting. Dr. Cassileth suggested that a double mastectomy and reconstruction would give her the best outcome both for breast cancer prevention and aesthetics. Dr. Cassileth showed Amanda the before-andafter photos, and her work spoke for itself. She is an artist, just like Amanda.
After everything was booked for her mastectomy with Dr. Cassileth, the other oncologist finally called. Amanda went for a second opinion, considering this option would have been paid for by her insurance. The minute she laid eyes on the before-and-after photos, she understood why women were so traumatized by this experience. She had to turn her face from the horrible images, not to mention the down time of having to go through two surgeries was inconceivable, especially after learning that Dr. Cassileth could do it all in just one procedure.
On her big day, she happily went into surgery knowing she was in good hands with Dr. Cassileth. The good news is she did not even need chemotherapy. Just as Dr. Cassileth assured her, there are no signs of the mastectomy, and her breasts are exactly the same size as her natural breasts. "I didn't even have to get new bras," Amanda said. "They're perfect." The only thing that changed in her life with breast cancer is she learned to slow down and take time to appreciate the love of her boyfriend and family.
"I don't know why anyone would choose to go through this without Lisa," she said.
Grayce is 63 years old and just recently had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery. In just one operation, she is complete, whole, and happy.
"If you saw me on the beach, naked in France, you wouldn't know I had this operation," she said. "My breasts are more natural-looking than I could have ever hoped for." Read more +
Grayce arrived at this fortunate position because she refused to accept the conventional operations for breast reconstruction that she described as "barbaric" procedures that no woman would have ever designed for other women. The conventional methods were just too "slash and burn" for her sensibilities. She is now a clinical psychologist, but in the past, she had worked for a company that helped introduce minimally invasive surgeries into hospitals.
She was aware that more than likely there were procedures available that had yet to reach frontline medicine. Grayce was right. She also subscribes to the philosophy that everything one needs is within six degrees of reach. Using this philosophy, instead of our usual "go to the Internet for answers," she began to share her need to find a breast reconstruction specialist within her network and community. The providential contact came through her 92-year-old male client, with a niece who was absolutely happy with her mastectomy and reconstruction. His niece turned Grayce onto Dr. Lisa Cassileth. It almost sounded like an oxymoron to Grayce. She had not heard of anyone happy with the results of a mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
As she explored all her options with Dr. Lisa Cassileth, Grayce no longer had to deliberate. The new one-stage breast reconstruction with implants at the same time as the mastectomy that Dr. Cassileth had pioneered was the perfect solution. For the first time, Grayce felt in the hands of a physician who cared about her worries and concerns as a woman while understanding the importance of aesthetics. More importantly, Dr. Cassileth did not make her feel like her worries were not important, as other surgeons had. Some even made her feel guilty that if she did not choose to do the procedure they suggested that she would be jeopardizing her life.
She felt an instant trust and connection with Dr. Cassileth. Her decision was predicated on Dr. Cassileth's skill combined with that of the surgical oncologist, working together to create aesthetically beautiful and natural results. Dr. Cassileth was able to recreate Grayce's natural size. Dr. Cassileth concealed the incision by placing it underneath, in the breast fold. There are no daily reminders of her mastectomy or her breast cancer when she looks in the mirror.
"It was extremely relaxing and lovingly set up for me," Grayce said. "I'm so pleased, I want to share my experience with all women."
Just after Maria's 49th birthday, she was diagnosed with cancer in her right breast. She is a curvy, 36 DD size, and loved her shape and size. The thought of having a mastectomy was difficult to digest. She decided to have chemotherapy and thought that might be her only course of action against this first-stage cancer. Read more +
Since her mother had a mastectomy without reconstructive surgery 10 years prior, she'd had enough of dealing with cancer surgery. In fact, the thought of having her breasts removed, followed by reconstructive surgery, revolted her. But Maria's mother and her family encouraged her to explore her options. Maria is an esteemed academic with a degree from Harvard University and a PhD from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Maria was able to turn an unfortunate situation into a story of resilience— one of a survivor, which she is proud to share.
While she was undergoing chemotherapy, she began to make appointments with reconstructive surgeons to discuss her options for breast reconstruction. It did not take long for Maria to feel overwhelmed. She found herself sitting in a two-hour consultation with a male plastic surgeon who discussed placing tissue expanders, or temporary empty breast implants, at the time of mastectomy. She would then return to his office regularly to have the implants inflated, a process she envisioned to be like going to the gas station to fill up these rafts that would stretch her chest wall muscle to eventually be able to hold a permanent implant placed on the second surgery. After visiting three reconstruction surgeons, Maria arrived in the office of Dr. Lisa Cassileth, the first female breast reconstruction surgeon she met. The words that resonated with her most were: "Your reconstructed breasts will move and feel like real breasts. When you lie on your side, breasts should move to the side, and these will have the same motion as natural breasts."
Dr. Cassileth is gifted creatively, aesthetically, and spatially. Being a woman, Dr. Cassileth was able to relate; she understood what Maria was looking for. She gave Maria the gift of being able to wake up from a mastectomy with a natural-looking breasts without requiring a second surgery. That means no visits to the "pumping station" and not having to experience waking up with a flat chest.
Maria sighed with relief.
"I'm so glad I waited to find Lisa," she said. "Not all women battling breast cancer have the energy to visit with four reconstruction surgeons before finding the right one." Maria woke up from the mastectomy with her new breasts intact, just as Dr. Cassileth promised. And yes, they do move like real breasts when she turns on her side. Dr. Cassileth concealed the tiny incision from her surgery with nipple reconstruction. There is no visual trace of the mastectomy.
"My breasts feel and look natural," Maria said. "I even wear a bra to protect them from gravity."
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