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The Grieving Process of Losing a Breast to Cancer

“Grief” is defined in the dictionary as deep mental anguish caused by affliction or loss. When a woman is told by her doctor that she will lose a breast due to cancer, she goes through many phases of grief. In this first segment of our two-part series, we examine what that grieving process is like. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.

In the fall of 2007, 57-year-old Lucy Billingsly of Highlandville was getting ready for work one morning when she noticed a hardened lump in her breast.

"I actually found it myself. I think it was pure accident that I found it, and that was four months after I’d had a mammogram," she says.She didn’t tell anyone for several weeks--she says she was “in denial,” especially since she had just had her regular mammogram. Finally, she confided in her husband, and he persuaded her to tell her doctor. "And so then we were on the fast train from then on. I had the mammogram, [it] still didn’t show anything. They followed that with an ultrasound that did pick up something," she says.The lump was a cancerous tumor, already in stage three. Billingsly was told she would need to have what’s referred to as a “simple mastectomy,” and soon. Most of her right breast was removed. At the time, the surgeon believed that the cancer had not reached her lymph nodes, so she had some remaining tissue and muscle after that operation. Billingsly decided to have reconstructive surgery with a breast implant. She was still recovering when her surgeon said he needed to see her again."So two weeks later, I met with him again for the pathology report, and he said, ‘I do not have good news for you.’”The cancer had, after all, spread deep into her glands. She would need what’s known as a “radical mastectomy.” That’s where the entire breast is removed, as well as most of the chest muscle and lymph nodes under the arm. This would make it more difficult for her to have a breast implant later."I didn’t react very well to that, really. I was pretty emotional at the time. I thought that all of that was behind me, we could get on with our lives," she said.Realizing that part of her womanhood would never be the same, Billingsly began to grieve. One woman who witnesses this grief firsthand every week is Pattie Behl."First comes tears, then comes anger," Behl says.She’s the program director at the Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks, and counsels women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer. "It’s grieving, because you’ve lost something that you had before that, no matter what you do, it will never be exactly the same," she says.

The stages of this grief, she says, can include denial, anger, and sensory overload—too much information in too little time. Then, she says, it’s inevitable for the patient to begin comparing herself to women everywhere. "Prior to treatment, you’re more sensitive to the commercials on TV, and the other people around you, because you know your body’s gonna be altered," she says.Some women choose the path of breast reconstruction: they get breast implants, or have a “tissue flap” procedure—that’s where the plastic surgeon takes tissue from another part of the body like the abdomen or thigh—and places it where the breast was. But not everyone has that option.SOUND: Door opening – piano playing in Hulston Cancer Center.After Lucy Billingsly had her radical mastectomy, she came here, to the Allenbrand Resource Center in CoxHealth’s Hulston Cancer Center. That’s where she met a young woman by the name of Autumn Bragg."I’m one of three certified mastectomy fitters here," she says.It's Bragg's job to find the right breast prosthesis for those patients who decide not to have reconstructive surgery. SOUND: CURTAIN DRAWING

"If it’s her first time, I’ll bring her in to a fitting room, and I”ll show her what a breast prosthesis look like," she says.Breast prostheses come in all shapes and sizes, and they are made to match the weight of a woman's natural breast.SOUND: ZIPPER OF PROSTHESIS CASE

"So this is the prosthesis...a lot of the ones we have come in their own carrying case," Bragg says.The prosthesis looks and feels much like one might imagine it would--the silicone mold is soft and malleable, and it's flesh colored.

"These are made to pass the hug test. So once someone has these placed in their bra, if someone were to give them a hug, it doesn't feel any different than their natural breast," she said. On the wall are rows upon rows of speciality bras and camisoles with pockets for the prostheses to slip into. Today, Bragg says, the manufacturers of this lingerie realize that women who have a breast removed still want to feel just as sexy as they did before their surgery, and that these products reflect that. “We’ve had some burgundies, black, blue, beiges, put the lace in, put the underwire in, criss-cross straps, and strapless bras,” she says. Bragg says she sees a lot of tears back in these dressing rooms. While some women appear to be at peace with the idea of wearing a prosthesis, others are still in shock.The final stage of grief for a woman who has lost a breast is acceptance. It can take a few months for some, and years for others.

Lucy Billingsly has made it to that point. She's still weighing her options, but has a positive attitude about wearing a prosthesis that she and her husband are both happy with. "There’s some days that I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable with it. But overall, it’s…it’s great," she says.She realizes now that she’s still every bit as much of a woman as she ever was. She now has the confidence to change in front of other women in the locker room, and even hopes it might inspire someone to schedule a mammogram. She says women in the early stages of losing a breast have to keep in perspective that just to survive the cancer, with or without both breasts, is in itself a blessing."Just try to realize that your life is more important. Because I remember thinking, ‘They can take my body, but they can’t take my soul.’”For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.

PIANO MUSICANCHOR TAG:Join us again Thursday morning at 7:30 for part two in this series.


How to Perform a Breast Self-Examination (American Cancer Society)

"Reach to Recovery" Support Group (American Cancer Society)

National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Website