Breast Reconstruction“I would have had just one general anaesthetic, one surgery and one recovery.” 

As heard on Today with Claire Byrne

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Fishing and sea swimming are two of Enda Waters’ big passions, and she’s keen to get back to them soon, but it’ll take a bit of planning. Enda had a mastectomy just a few weeks ago. The Meath woman told Claire Byrne about her cancer diagnosis and treatment, and her shock at finding out that immediate breast reconstruction was off the table. Enda says she was shocked to hear that reconstructive breast surgery is classified as “non-essential” under current pandemic restrictions.

On December 17th last, Enda says she found a lump on her breast. Three weeks and a nervous Christmas later, she had a medical examination, leading to a mammogram and biopsies. She was diagnosed with two types of cancer and a mastectomy was scheduled.

The 57-year old sounded calm and matter-of-fact as she told Claire she knew it was serious before it was confirmed. She was already a few steps ahead in her mind:

“At the time I was told of my diagnosis, I immediately asked about reconstruction. And my consultant, who is a wonderful guy, said, ‘No, it’s not happening.’ I said why and he said that it was because of the pandemic.” 

Enda says the consultant told her it’s normal to do a breast reconstruction straight after a mastectomy and it’s common practice for the plastic surgeons to move in and do their job while the patient is still under anaesthetic from the first procedure. Enda says her consultant told her this wasn’t going to be an option for her:

“He was saying, ‘It’s not happening; because of Covid it’s considered non-essential surgery,’ which frankly, I was gobsmacked to hear and when I look back and hear people who have contacted me, it’s not too bad for me. I’m 57 years of age, I’m in a steady, loving relationship with a husband and 4 reared kids. I’ve heard stories of 24-year-olds who are being denied reconstruction.” 

Claire suggested that reconstructive surgery is important no matter what your age and circumstances. Enda agreed that it would have made a huge difference to her, as she adjusts to the changes in her body, while coping with recovery at the same time:

“I am looking at a gash where I used to have my breast. I’ve been told that I would be fitted with a prosthesis and Almacare is closed, because it’s non-essential.” 

Unable to have the surgery she wanted, Enda says the process of getting fitted for a prosthesis and special bras was awkward. Almacare, the company that provides prostheses and post-operative bras on behalf of the HSE is closed and the service has gone online.  Being measured virtually is challenging, Enda says. Even though the measuring job was done with kindness, words fail Enda as she recalls the experience:

“I mean it’s hard enough to look at your gashed breast yourself, but to have to put it to a screen and for some stranger, as gently as possible, talk you through measuring yourself for your bra and your prosthesis is quite frankly…” 

An immediate reconstruction would have been beneficial on so many counts, Enda says:

“If Covid wasn’t there, I would have had a reconstruction at the same time. I would have had just one general anaesthetic, one surgery and one recovery.” 

Enda also spoke about the solitary nature of having a serious illness in Covid times. She says the isolation was tough:

“Every appointment I’ve had in the hospital has been on my own. I got my cancer diagnosis on my own. I was dropped into the hospital at 6 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t come out for four days later. Apart from phone calls and Facetime. But you really don’t want to Facetime someone if you’ve had a mastectomy.” 

Keen to encourage anyone who has noticed a physical change that might be a cause for concern, Enda says making that call to your GP could save your life, and it could also put your mind at rest:

“Wouldn’t you be a lot better off finding out you didn’t have breast cancer and the little lump is nothing, rather than actually letting it progress? And because some cancers can be hidden. I know a lot of mine was only detected on ultrasound.”  

The Mater Private Hospital where Enda was treated gave Today with Claire Byrne a statement on their policy on breast reconstruction as it relates to the Covid restrictions. The show also asked the HSE, who laid out their position and you can hear those statements in Claire’s full interview with Enda here.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2021

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