When NBC’s Kristen Dahlgren was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t think much about the lack of sensation that her mastectomy would likely leave her with. She went ahead with her mastectomy, and only later did she realize what tragic side effects would accompany it.
“I had never really thought about or realized that people who have mastectomies generally lose feeling,” she recalls. “Think about that. That’s never feeling a hug or my little girl falling asleep on my chest.”
Jane Obediah is another woman who sadly lost sensation in her chest due to a double mastectomy. After her cancer diagnosis, she was primarily preoccupied with surviving and wasn’t as concerned about the side effects of surgery.
“I sat with a breast surgeon, and I said to her, ‘It’s taken me all this time to find the man of my dreams. What do I have to do to grow old and wrinkly with him?’ And she said, ‘Double mastectomy.’ And that’s what we did right away.”
Jane thought that the loss of sensation was just something that she was going to have to deal with for the rest of her life. But when her newborn baby was laid on her chest for the first time and she couldn’t feel it, she knew she had to see if there was anything she could do.
“I’d have to look down to see that she was there. I think that’s when I first sort of really took on how much of a loss that sensation was.”
In her research, Jane came across Dr. Constance Chen, a doctor who performs natural tissue reconstruction procedures for breast cancer patients.
In natural tissue reconstruction, a surgeon uses the patient’s own fat from other areas of the body to construct realistic breasts without the use of implants.
Dr. Chen, however, is one of very few doctors in the world who reconstructs nerves (known as “resensation“) as part of this procedure. It’s similar to a nerve grafting method that’s been used successfully since 2007.
Dr. Chen says that resensation, which adds about an extra hour and a half to the natural tissue reconstruction surgery, doesn’t work for every patient, but many of her patients say they redevelop nearly complete sensation after the procedure. All of her patients have gotten some level of sensation back, although it’s not always much.
“I like to at least try to restore sensation for people, because when it works, it works quite well,” she says.
For Jane, at least, the natural tissue reconstruction with resensation gave her about 80 percent of the feeling in her chest back. She now feels more like her full self than she did before.
“I really want women to know—and any type of breast cancer patient—that you can want more,” says Jane.
Kristen Dahlgren will undergo her natural tissue reconstruction surgery with resensation soon, and she hopes it will help her too.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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