Reconstructive surgery is often part of the recovery process
By MARY CLOUD TAYLOR
Daily Inter Lake
When women of the Flathead Valley and beyond find themselves facing a breast-cancer diagnosis, Dr. Michelle Spring becomes a familiar face to many along their path to recovery.
A board-certified plastic surgeon, Spring walks with women, not only through their cancer treatment but also through the process of breast reconstruction.
Working directly with Kalispell Regional Medical Center breast-cancer surgeon Melissa Hulvat, Spring and her partner, Michael Hromadka of Glacier View Plastic Surgery, conduct the breast reconstructions for all breast-cancer patients at the hospital.
According to Spring, she usually sees new patients the day of their diagnosis, right after they receive their treatment plan.
At that first consultation, Spring said most of her patients are, in a word, overwhelmed.
“They’ve been diagnosed with cancer. They’re afraid. They’re trying to absorb everything, and then I’m talking to them now about how do we reconstruct your breast after you have a mastectomy,” Spring said.
Where the conversation goes that day varies, she said, and each of her patients reacts differently.
Some, she said, don’t care and just want the cancer treated without having to consider or go through an additional surgical procedure and recovery.
Others are devastated at the thought of a mastectomy and the realization that they will lose their breasts.
“It’s an extremely common disease. We see all ages, from 20 to 70, with cancer diagnoses,” Spring said. “Everybody has a different perspective.”
Throughout her 10 years of reconstructive work, Spring said she has heard a number of motives from women who’ve decided to pursue breast reconstruction.
Common sentiments she said include “I want to die feeling whole,” “I feel like my spouse looks at me differently,” “I don’t fill out my clothing,” “I hate the prosthesis” and “I don’t feel like me.”
“Women want to feel like they did before they were diagnosed with cancer, and that a part of them that has changed,” Spring said.
Whatever the reason, Spring said breast-cancer reconstruction makes a up a large chunk of her practice, as most women find the extensive and somewhat painful process worthwhile.
She starts each patient’s plan by determining whether they’re a candidate for reconstruction, whether to begin the reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy or wait, what kind of reconstruction to do and what risks are involved.
Much of the plan relies on the patient’s health and preference as to which kind of reconstruction they want, implant-based or tissue-based.
If the patient is a candidate and agrees to immediate reconstruction, Spring can implement a tissue expander at the same time as the mastectomy, minimizing the initial surgery and recovery time.
Though the patient’s interaction with the breast-cancer surgeon usually ends there, she and Spring often have a long way to go before their time together ends.
Between the initial surgery and the final step of areola and nipple reconstruction, Spring tells her patients to expect the overall process to take a minimum of one year.
Some aspects of breast reconstruction, like how implants are manufactured, certain techniques and alternate options such as fat grafting, have changed over the last several years, according to Spring.
However, she noted, as with any surgery, there can still be complications and she often sees patients for more than a year.
“It’s not uncommon to have healing problems. We’re asking a lot of that tissue,” Spring said. “It doesn’t always go perfectly, but it usually goes well.”
Over the time spent with each patient, Spring said she gets to know the women and their families pretty well.
“It’s a great part of what we do, I think, helping people and then forming that relationship with people,” she said.
Her interactions over the years with breast-cancer patients have left her with a deeper understanding of women’s strength.
“It’s devastating on one hand, to sort of be with someone and see what people are going through, but it’s also pretty amazing to see how strong people are and how people persevere,” she said.
Fortunately, over the last two decades, society has altered to make life easier for breast-cancer patients.
In 1998, a new law federally mandated that insurance companies cover breast reconstruction and symmetry procedures, meaning most women can pursue the procedure at little to no cost to them.
Spring said she has also seen improvements in support for patients among society and especially among other women.
Between social media and local groups, she said around half of her new patients already have begun talking with other women about their experiences and learning about their options.
That doesn’t always make it easier, Spring said, but at least women are able to talk to each other and don’t have to go through it alone.
“I have not had breast cancer myself, and you never know how you would respond to things, so I’m always really proud of everybody. They’re really strong,” Spring said.
Spring and her team at Glacier View plan to host a block party outside their office on Four Mile Drive from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 17, in celebration of National Breast Reconstruction Day.
For more information about Spring or Glacier View, visit www.glacierviewplasticsurgery.com.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or email@example.com.