Determination, surprises and the comical side of reconstruction surgery

With a second breast cancer diagnosis, Carla Watson, of Mifflinburg, was surprised to learn she could not have radiation for the second time on the same breast.

When two local women faced breast cancer and reconstruction surgery, one dug in deep with determination, the other laughed off the inconvenience, but both hoped their experiences can help others.

“The thing most helpful for me with cancer and reconstruction surgery was, there’s so much information out there and you don’t know what is good advice or what is not,” said Becky Cunfer, of Millville. “I know a lot of people, their first instinct is to Google ‘breast reconstruction’ or something like that. My absolute advice is, don’t ever do that.

“Talk to your surgeons. The world has so much information that is askew from the truth.”

A second breast cancer diagnosis for Carla Watson, of Mifflinburg, brought some new revelations.

“I was surprised that they could not do radiation twice on the same breast and had to just remove the whole thing,” she said. “And recently I was surprised to learn that I cannot give blood ever again because I have had a recurrence of cancer. It seems silly to me. I’m perfectly fine and able to give blood.”

Watson, 58, ended up having a mastectomy at Geisinger Medical Center and opted for reconstructive surgery. Although she emphasized that her situation was “trivial” compared to what most people deal with, she didn’t like to treat it as a secret, especially if her experiences can ease others’ fears.

She was also surprised to learn that patients must decide on reconstruction before their breast removal surgery is scheduled so the breast surgeon and plastic surgeon can work collaboratively.

“I cannot give enough praise to my doctors and the way they worked together to schedule me,” Watson said, noting that at the time she was juggling one daughter’s college graduation and another’s wedding. “They went out of their way to accommodate me. They also said, ‘You will be beautiful in time for the wedding.’ To which I replied, ‘Then you must be going to do a lot more procedures than just the reconstruction.’”

That cheery attitude helped her keep things in perspective.

“I think an important thing is to keep a sense of humor and just do what needs to be done,” Watson said. “You just roll with it.”

Another attitude is to treat cancer like a personal challenge.

“I’m a mountain climber,” said Cunfer, 33. “My goal was, exactly one year from the day I was diagnosed, I was going to be on a mountain top. (And) exactly a year after being diagnosed, on December 29, I climbed a mountain. It was amazing. Friends and family came out with me. Even the local newspaper from where I grew up followed along.”

Since then Cunfer has climbed five large peaks.

“I’m an aspiring 46-er. There are 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks,” she said. “Especially after surviving cancer, it’s really awesome to know you have a strength within yourself that you don’t realize.”

While Cunfer opted to start reconstruction surgery immediately after her mastectomy, Watson chose to wait a few months to avoid interfering with the busy season where she works at Ard’s Farm Market, in Lewisburg. As it happened, during that time she needed an MRI for a different issue.

“I was actually in the changing room, about to go into the MRI room, when I was filling out a final questionnaire and suddenly realized that the spacer that was temporarily implanted was metal. It had never even dawned on me throughout all of the preliminary questions,” she said, adding with typical humor, “If the final sheet would not have specifically asked if I had a breast expander, I would have exploded.”

Even on the operating table, after countless checks to make sure the staff had the right patient, someone thought they heard her birth year was 1952 rather than 1962.

“They check and check and check to make sure you are who you are supposed to be, and as I was in the OR ready to be put under, they misheard my birthdate and thought they had me 10 years older than I was. There was quite a bit of alarm until they realized there was a miscommunication,” Watson said, adding mirthfully, “I told them they owed me a facelift for making me 10 years older.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com

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