When I was a surgical resident, I donated 150 ounces of breastmilk to a woman I’d never met, a woman who had undergone a bilateral mastectomy for cancer. It was an easy decision – I had more than I could use, she had none that she could provide. This experience became a major one in my decision to specialize in breast surgery. The dichotomy of breasts fascinated me. Breasts are highly sexualized, yet the source of comfort and food to babies. Breasts can make life-sustaining milk, and they can develop a cancer in up to 1 in 8 women that can be life-threatening. It is no wonder that society’s relationship with breasts and breastfeeding is complicated.
I have had many patients (too many) in my practice who were young and pre-childbearing, or even pregnant or breastfeeding at the time of diagnosis. Most experience the same terror that Ms. Wax-Thibodeux felt. Many choose bilateral mastectomies, prioritizing their health and a minimization of future risk. I also care for young women with benign breast disease, that still require surgical biopsies. I do discuss the potential impact of any surgery on breastfeeding. For a lot of women, this is a side effect they hadn’t even considered. It often does not ultimately change their mind about their own most appropriate surgical choice, but there can be a pause. A moment where they consider what that means, when they reconcile themselves to that consequence, when they have the moment to grieve. Unfortunately, I suspect that not all of my colleagues do this. I wasn’t ever trained to discuss it. We spent more time, significantly more time, discussing the cosmetic changes of the breasts than any functional changes (including, unfortunately, changes in sensation that may affect sexual enjoyment.) So, for women whose world has been rocked by a cancer diagnosis at a young age, who are terrified about their survival, there is probably not the opportunity to mourn the loss of breastfeeding, until that moment comes when they hold their babies in their arms. Read the rest of this entry »
Surgeons are often Type A personalities, the ones who sit in the front of the class, who volunteer for everything, who stay scrubbed in the OR all day with appendicitis and do a post-op check before checking themselves into the emergency department (yes, that was me.) As such, surgeons are often dismissive of the subspecialty of breast surgery. The surgeries are not as complex as cardiac bypass surgery or Whipple procedures for pancreatic cancer. In fact, it’s often a rotation for interns. I was a Type A personality. I had no plans to do breast surgery.
Then, a funny thing happened. I had my first son during residency. Planned with military precision, of course, to coincide with the beginning of my designated research years, as I had hoped to squeeze another baby in there somewhere. After his birth, I would breastfeed, because that is what Type A mothers do these days. It’s the best! Of course, I would do the best! However, like many mothers out there, we had an incredibly rocky start. Poor latch with inadequate weight gain. Triple feeding with pumped milk. Cracked nipples leading to mastitis. As a Type A person, I threw myself into research in an effort to solve the problems. Not just the many, many baby books out there, but Medline searches on breastfeeding management. I learned more than I ever had in my surgery textbooks about the breast, the physiology of lactation that is both incredibly simple and enormously complex, and most importantly, miraculous. I was reminded constantly in my reading of the importance of preserving this ability to breastfeed my son, for his and my health, and how challenging that could be.