A breast cancer survivor tells all

By Hannah Klarner
For Unwind magazine

One in every eight American women will develop breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Diane Bovalino is one of those women.

“You have to save your life, so you don’t think about mentally what it’s like to lose your breast,” said Bovalino, a breast cancer survivor of eight years.

Bovalino went in for her routine mammogram, and was asked to come back for a special view and a biopsy, which are the first steps in diagnosing breast cancer.

Before the biopsy results, Bovalino’s surgeon told her, “If it does come back [as] invasive cancer, [she is] going to have to remove your entire left breast.”

Although Bovalino hadn’t officially been told she had cancer, she had her suspicions.

“I could tell by the way the doctors were acting that they knew I had cancer,” she said. “I just could tell. You see it in their face and the way that they’re acting. I did really like the surgeon though, because she just said it right from the get-go, you’re going to lose the entire left breast.”

Biopsies confirmed Bovalino’s thoughts and the doctors’ suspicions. She had breast cancer.

After the diagnosis, Bovalino entered survival mode and adopted a step-by-step mentality.

“I was so caught up in fighting for my life, I wasn’t too worried about [cancer affecting the rest of her life],” she said. “I didn’t think about the long term, I didn’t even go there.”

Next Bovalino met with a surgeon to discuss the possibility of removing her right breast as well. “I asked her what her opinion would be, and she said ‘If I were you, at the age of 40, I would do it.’”

Bovalino made the pre-emptive decision to remove both breasts in an attempt to rid her body of cancer. In the initial meeting, Bovalino’s surgeon drew diagrams and walked her through the staging process. They discussed the aggressiveness of her cancer, and the levels of chemotherapy she would go through.

According to Deborah Kirkland, a patient navigator at The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, it is in this initial meeting that the patient learns whether they are a candidate for a lumpectomy, a surgery to remove affected tissue while leaving the breast largely intact, or a mastectomy, a major surgery to remove the entire breast. Chemotherapy depends on each patient’s needs.

Immediately after meeting with her surgeon, Bovalino met with the plastic surgeon who would perform her reconstruction. She left these initial meetings with a plan to help her become a cancer survivor.

The progression from biopsy to diagnosis to surgery is the key early phase in the physical treatment of cancer. Both Bovalino and Kirkland agree patients should be prepared for the toll of the emotional and spiritual impacts of breast cancer.

Breast cancer patients and survivors have a strong community, which includes many types of support groups. Bovalino and Kirkland both stressed that while support groups are important, it is more important to find the one that best meets a patient’s individual needs.

Bovalino turned to 100 Survivors, a project created by Francesca Danieli, who has since died of breast cancer, and her friend Julia Kim Smith, to help chronicle her journey. The project collects and curates stories from women living with breast cancer. She found that describing her experience provided the emotional benefit that she needed.

Bovalino began writing her story six months into her treatment, and completed it after nearly two years of work. “It helped me put in words and it helped me journal and it helped me in the pictures, to put down what I went through,” she said.

Bovalino is passionate about sharing her story, and all its details—including the decision to remove both breasts and pictures of her tattooed areolas after reconstruction—to help others.

When asked what she would tell a newly diagnosed patient, Bovalino answered without hesitation that, “You’re going to make it through. It will be the toughest thing you’ve probably ever done in your life, but you’ll make it through.”

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