JOURNEY TO PREVENT BREAST CANCER | “This is not a death sentence for your breasts"
BALTIMORE (WBFF) - Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to test your strength, whether you like it or not.
At 48 years old, Amy Childers never thought she would be learning to fly. She began what she calls "circus lessons" a few months ago.
In this season of life, there are a lot of things she did not expect.
“Anything that has to do with cancer makes you sit down and reevaluate what's important. It's this wake up call,” explained Childers.
Six months ago, she underwent a preventative bilateral mastectomy.
“I got weaker before I got stronger,” she said. “Getting myself to the point of doing the surgeries was an exercise in bootstrap courage: doing what had to be done when you don't want to do it, and you're dreading doing it.”
It’s a surgery many women with a genetic disposition to developing breast cancer, like Childers, are now turning to.
Dr. Justin Sacks, the Director of Reconstructive Oncology for Johns Hopkins Hospital, has dedicated his life to not just making women feel whole again, but making them strong, giving them options to thrive.
“This is not a death sentence for your breasts,” he said. “This is not a death sentence for you as a person, as a woman. This is the beginning of a different journey.”
He’s who FOX45 Reporter Joy Lambert turned to when it was time for her preventative double mastectomy. Like Childers, she also carries the BRCA genetic mutation, increasing her odds of developing breast cancer to up to 80 percent.
Dr. Sacks says for the right patient, it’s an option to change their destiny.
“You're a young parent working. Why do you need to have breast cancer in 10 years? There's no reason. Not in 2017. You can get a test that will give you a prediction with percentages.”
They're percentages which reflect the odds of your fate. It's a gamble Lambert realized in 2008, when she took the blood test. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all had breast cancer.
Dr. David Euhus is the Director of Breast Surgery for Johns Hopkins Hospital. He also has a history in studying genetics.
“That is a family history pattern of higher penetrance," said Dr. Euhus regarding Lambert, “I would put you in the 70-80 percent range, and also a little earlier onset. That's why I was very supportive of your decision.”
For those with a genetic risk, mammograms begin earlier than the average woman.
Lambert started hers at 25. For nine years, she alternated mammograms and MRI’s every six months.
To reduce her risk of ovarian cancer, which is also a high risk for BRCA carriers, she had her ovaries removed in 2015. Preventative double mastectomy was the next step.
Dr. Euhus said: “The family experience has so much to do with those who chose risk reducing surgery. Patients that never saw breast cancer in the family or don't have experience are more likely to do the enhanced surveillance. The MRI and the mammograms quite a bit longer than the patients who had a bad experience with breast cancer in the family, that pushes, 'Yeah, were doing this and getting it done.'"
This surgery is vastly different than the radical, life-saving one Lambert's mom had 25 years ago.
"The surgeries changed so much," said Dr. Euhus. "Twenty years ago, we did these big mastectomies and put these big scars on the women. I always felt bad about that... I always felt, there's got to be a better way to do this."
Now, many preventative surgeries are nipple-sparing and skin-saving, with discreet scars under the fold of the breast.
One of the biggest advancements in reconstruction has happened in the last few years.
"I'll place an expander, in the right patient, on top of the muscle," explained Dr. Sacks. "Then I'll place biological tissue and then we begin the process of restoring the volume of the breast. And you're not really stretching the muscle, which is the big problem with pain."
Restoring the volume is a process that lasts several months. However, the new technique allows women to recover faster.
Dr. Sacks says Childers sent him a picture of her at yoga with her arms straight up in the air. Referencing the photo, he said: "This doesn't happen five years ago in patients who have submuscular tissue expander reconstruction, a month out, doing yoga like that."
Childers said: "Women want to be rebuilt and put back together, but they also want to go back to doing what they were doing, and that's what's so astounding about this technique."
For some, it's an opportunity to do even more than before. For Childers, these lessons aren't just about learning to fly, but an unexpected season of strength.
Childers said: "I walked back there and climbed onto that table by myself. It was so deliberate that, in restrospect, if I can do that, I can do anything that I set my mind to."
The genetic test is a simple blood test; it is often covered by insurance.