Feeling Whole Again After Breast Cancer

by Carla Esser Lake

Her breast lump was small. So small that Kathi Wilson's first two doctors did not even pursue testing it. They felt the likelihood of cancer at age 32 was very slim. "No one wanted to believe I had cancer at such a young age," Kathi said. "But I just knew I did, so I stuck with my instincts until I found Dr. Gibson."

Confirmation and a radical decision

After a taking a biopsy confirming Stage I cancer, general surgeon Laurence Gibson, MD, gave Kathi three options: a lumpectomy to remove just the lump, removal of the affected breast or removal of both breasts. Kathi chose the most radical, yet safest approach -- a double mastectomy, to provide the best odds that the cancer would not return.

Sensitive to the fact that losing both breasts at such a young age could be devastating, Dr. Gibson reassured Kathi they could be reconstructed. He recommended plastic and reconstructive surgeon Aras Tijunelis, MD, and walked her over to his office the very same day he told her about her cancer.

"I felt comfortable with Dr. Tijunelis as soon as I met him," Kathi said. "Talking and laughing with him has really helped me a lot through this whole thing."

Healing inside and out

Dr. Tijunelis surgically implanted a tissue expander under the skin and muscle of each of Kathi's breasts at the time of her mastectomy. When she awoke from her surgery, she already had the beginnings of her new breasts.

After 12 weeks of preventive chemotherapy, Dr. Tijunelis began filling the tissue expanders gradually with saline solution to gently stretch the skin, making room for Kathi's permanent implants.

Once the implants are in place, the final step will be reconstructing the nipples using a skin graft and tattooing technique.

"I joked around with Dr. Tijunelis when he told me my new nipples would be tattooed on," Kathi said, "telling him to just go for it and decorate them with something creative like a dragon," she laughed.

"In all seriousness," she added, trying hard not to cry, "anyone can be a good doctor, but it takes someone special, like Dr. Tijunelis, to be an exceptional human being. Right after the surgery, I couldn't even look at my chest. But he helped me accept my body again."

While Dr. Tijunelis' skilled hands ensure positive physical results, patients also benefit from the emotional elixir contained in his reassuring bedside manner.

"Dr. Tijunelis is a gifted artist, brilliant surgeon and nice guy all rolled into one," said his office nurse, Mary Salabounis, RN. "Patients just love him, and they walk away very pleased."

TRAM flap technique

In addition to implants, Dr. Tijunelis also uses another form of breast reconstruction called the TRAM flap technique, which avoids using artificial implants by making use of the patient's own tissue.

Muscle tissue from the abdomen is tunneled under the skin to the front of the chest to support the reconstructed breast. The relocated tissue provides enough bulk to form a natural feeling breast, and the suitable patient gets a bonus "tummy tuck" in the process.

© Carla Esser Lake


Carla Esser Lake is a writer employed by Condell Health Network. Serving residents of Lake County, Illinois, a suburban area north of Chicago, Condell Health Network includes Condell Medical Center, Condell Acute Care Centers, Centre Clubs, the innovative Condell Day Center for Intergenerational Care, Pediatric Alternatives in Creative Therapy (PACT), Condell Medical Buildings and Condell Home Health Systems.