Breast cancer event aims to empower survivors about reconstructive options

A breast cancer diagnosis is something staggering to take in. Not just the sucker punch of the medical news, but the many complex decisions that follow.

Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day is an annual event

Belinda Dunlop chose no reconstruction after her mastectomy, and she wanted to show others it was a viable option. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

A breast cancer diagnosis is something staggering to take in. Not just the sucker punch of the medical news, but the many complex decisions that follow.

Lois Milne knows that conversation from both sides — she's a family physician and a breast cancer survivor.

"It's very overwhelming," Milne said, while attending a Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day event in Calgary on Wednesday.

The event is meant to connect those who have been diagnosed with or who have already gone through breast cancer with others in the same boat, as well as with physicians and plastic surgeons. 

It also includes a room where people with breast cancer or who have been diagnosed as genetic carriers and are looking to get prophylactic reconstruction done, and their partners, can speak with those who have gone through the same thing — and view the results of a different range of surgeries first-hand. 

From going flat, to different types of reconstruction, to tattoos, there are a variety of options.

"Today, I'm showing my previous reconstruction," said Heather Cooper. "I find it takes a lot of the scariness out because we're all regular people."

Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day is an annual event that aims to educate women about their options following a breast cancer diagnosis. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Cooper was diagnosed at 28-years-old with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She had no family history and no risk factors.

Now, at 36-years-old and after a second occurrence, eight reconstructive surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, she's cancer-free.

Cooper had two different types of implants, as well as fat grafting. Her latest surgery involved creating breasts out of transferred abdominal fat. 

"It has, in my opinion, a lot more natural results … it's your own tissue," she said.

She said when she was first diagnosed, there weren't enough resources out there to help her make these monumental decisions about her own body. Now, she's hoping to make sure others have all the information they need.

An attendee at Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day watches a video showing a nipple reconstruction surgery. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Belinda Dunlop feels the same.

When she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in 2016 that wasn't caught on mammogram, she just assumed her next option would be reconstructive surgery.

"After going through chemo, and bi-lateral mastectomy and radiation … it's a long haul," she said. "By the end of it, I just felt like I wanted some normalcy back in my life and not wanting to be in pain all the time.

"I chose no reconstruction, and I'm just here so people can see what that looks like and see that's a viable option."

Marnie Bondar was diagnosed in December 2018. Two weeks later she started chemo. Since then, she's had one surgery and completed radiation in July.

She said she had no idea that reconstruction would be a multiple-surgery event. But along with information, she said she's been grateful to find support and mentorship. 

The most impactful part of the day for her? Seeing photos of breast cancer survivors in evening gowns, followed by photos of them nude, proudly displaying their different scars. 

"What was most important for me was that scars and all, they were stunningly beautiful, powerful, awe-inspiring women," she said.

With files from Hala Ghonaim