Sue Garmonsway says she was in “complete shock” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019. She had no symptoms and never expected anything like that to happen to her.
Six weeks later, she underwent a single mastectomy on her right breast. As soon as she woke up from surgery, she knew she’d prefer it if both of them were gone.
“It’s about symmetry, looking in the mirror and seeing two sides that look the same,” she says.
Sue also mentions that having one breast means she still has to wear a bra and that she has to use a prosthesis for her missing breast. She’d rather have the freedom not to wear anything under her shirt if she doesn’t want to.
So a year later, Sue went to her surgeon at the Waikato District Health Board to see if she could have a secondary mastectomy on the unaffected breast. This procedure would help ensure that her cancer didn’t come back in that breast and help her feel more symmetrical and “normal.”
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However, the surgeon disagreed with Sue’s plan, stating that she must be “struggling with body image issues.” The surgeon immediately referred her to a counselor to address an apparent psychological problem.
“I did find that incredibly upsetting,” Sue says. “The assumption was that I was struggling with body image issues, and a referral was made for some psychological counseling, which I found surprising.”
According to a Waikato DHB spokesperson, “prophylactic (preventative) mastectomy may well be offered in a context of persisting high risk.” In other words, because Sue’s risk of recurring breast cancer was low, she was not eligible for the second surgery.
But Sue is more than just not eligible for a second surgery. If her surgeon’s words are to be believed, then she shouldn’t even want the second surgery.
“It’s just a constant feeling of being in limbo and wanting some closure,” Sue says.
Luckily, however, that surgeon wasn’t the only opinion Sue got on the matter. In 2020, while much of the healthcare system was shut down or delayed due to COVID-19, Sue saw a private surgeon to talk about some benign cysts that had been found in her left breast. While she was there, she asked about having the breast removed altogether and was told she could do that if she wanted to.
Sue’s second surgery is now scheduled for May, and she’ll finally be able to get her closure and feel better about herself. However, she says she feels awful for the people who can’t afford private care and aren’t always able to get their closure.
A spokesperson for the Breast Cancer Foundation confirms that patients should be supported and guided through their journeys, but the ultimate decision should always belong to the patient.
“Our view on this is that women should be able to have thorough conversations with their breast surgeons about removing their healthy breast, and have the option to do so,” the spokesperson says.
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