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Coping with the physical changes of breast cancer

Published: Jun. 26, 2015 at 10:34 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 26, 2015 at 11:26 AM CDT
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When a woman is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, she is faced with the decision of whether or not to save her breasts.  That is a highly personal decision, affecting much more than the body.

Kim Erickson of Moss Bluff is a breast cancer survivor who says it was never about her breasts, it was about killing her cancer.

Call it a woman's intuition - weeks before Erickson even found out she had breast cancer, she just had a hunch that her annual mammogram would have a different outcome.  "The night before I went for the mammogram, I said to my husband, 'Would you be okay if I had a mastectomy'  He said, 'What? Where is that coming from?  You're just having a routine mammogram.'  I said, 'I don't know.  I just have that feeling.'"

That feeling proved to be true. The mammogram was followed by an ultrasound and biopsy, showing a cancerous mass in Erickson's left breast.  

Erickson did six months of chemotherapy and made a decision to have both breasts removed through a bilateral mastectomy, then reconstructed with a DIEP flap procedure.  It is a long process that has spanned two years now.  "This is a very personal journey," she said, "Everybody makes decisions that are right for them and what's right for one person is not necessarily right for another."

West Calcasieu Cameron Hospital breast health navigator Angie Jones says hair loss and body image have a deep effect on a woman's cancer journey.  "It can affect the way their children look at them, their husband," said Jones.  "There's been times when I've had patients who end up getting a divorce, because either they couldn't deal with it or their husband couldn't deal with the body image changes."

For Erickson, she said she did her best to embrace the changes, starting with a new 'do.  "I said, 'You know what?  I'm just going to buzz it right now. I'm going to do this so it's my decision when it falls out,'" she said.  "I'm not going to wait and pull out handfuls of hair.  To me that would be more disturbing than for me just to shave it."

Erickson's children shaved her head and she shaved her husband's.

The next physical change was having her breasts removed, but she says that is not what defines her as a woman.  "Not losing my breasts or my hair," said Erickson, "that doesn't make the person that you are."

Erickson says cancer might have changed her appearance, but she never let it change her zeal for life.  "I stayed very involved in church, was even in a play during the middle of chemo," she said.  "You can keep your life.  You don't have to just lay down in the bed for six months."

Erickson is in the final stage of the reconstructive process now.  It involves areola pigmentation, restoring the circular pigment around the reconstructed nipple.

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