Prophylactic Mastectomy: How I Weighed My Cancer Risk and Had My Breasts Removed at Age 33

Donna Estreicher was 32 years old when her family members tested positive for the breast cancer (BRCA) gene. The disease itself had already hit her mother and sister. Still, as a young single woman with an active dating life, she resisted getting the test or thinking about the prospect of the double mastectomy that might follow. Then she decided it was time to take the leap.

My sister Beth had breast cancer; I tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, and my father did too; my mother had breast cancer but tested negative, as did my sister Carolyn.

Will I Get Breast Cancer?

My mother had breast cancer about 10 years ago, and my sister Beth got diagnosed in 2004. She tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, so she ended up getting a double mastectomy.

I'm one of three girls, so Beth's test results gave me and my other sister, Carolyn, a 50% chance of having the gene mutation.

At first, I didn't do anything with that information. I felt like I was too young to worry at just 32. Also, why would I get tested? I would never get surgery, so what was the point of knowing?

Carolyn got tested right away, and she was negative. My parents both got tested too, and it turned out that even though my mother had had breast cancer, my father was the breast cancer gene carrier.

Eventually, I started getting really scared of chemotherapy—more than cancer. I started hearing how damaging chemo could be, that it could cause infertility.

I became an emotional wreck and spent a couple of months deciding if I wanted to get tested—and face the possibility of a double mastectomy.

It was a catch–22: If I'm positive, how am I going to live with this information? But if I don't find out I'm positive, I'm still living in fear.


Will Men Find Me Attractive?

When I tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation in April 2005, I was devastated. I felt like I'd just gotten a life sentence. But I still was not ready for a mastectomy.

I think the worst part was that I was single and dating. It's hard enough to meet somebody as it is. How am I going to meet somebody if I have scars all over? Will men really be able to accept this and love me and find me attractive?

What I really needed was to talk to other women who had done the surgery to see actual results. I really only wanted to talk to single women, but it was virtually impossible to find them.

I got hooked up with a support group but a lot of these women had had oophorectomies (the removal of ovaries), and they were talking about how they lost their sex drive, and how their hormones were crazy. That actually made me feel worse. I was just trying to wrap my head around maybe losing my breasts!

Strong Reactions

It was interesting but I found that the men in my life—like my father and my brothers-in-law—were more worried than I was like they didn't know if men could really handle that.

My parents kind of kept to themselves and ended up telling me after the fact that they really didn't think that I should have done it—because of how men would react.

But none of my friends thought it was unreasonable to consider a double mastectomy or that it was too drastic or a mistake. I know a lot of other women who had people in their lives say they were crazy for doing this.

I made the final decision to have the surgery in August 2005. I think the last piece that nailed it down for me was when I met with a plastic surgeon and she explained that they can do skin sparing, and I saw her photos of all the patients she had done. It was amazing.


All three sisters, marching for breast cancer research: Beth, me, and Carolyn.

Saying Goodbye to My Breasts…

I saw a therapist who suggested I formally look in the mirror and say goodbye to my breasts and make an emotional connection with them. My friend did a photo shoot for me. And I definitely had those mirror moments where I was looking straight on and saying goodbye to the images of them, and the touch.

I think I went through such a healthy process. I didn't rush into it. I really was at peace by the time I made the decision. And during that time I was also training for the Avon walk—I was getting in shape and feeling connected to the cause.

But there was definitely a feeling of a countdown, especially in the last couple of weeks. 20 days, 19 days…I was ticking off the days. It did feel like doomsday but I was confident in my decision.

…and Going Under the Knife

In a skin-sparing mastectomy, they cut around the nipple, and all the skin stays, except for your nipple. They scoop out all the breast tissue through the hole that they make in each breast. They also put tissue expanders under the muscles of the chest wall to start stretching the skin for implants.

My surgery was a lot less scary than I thought it was going to be because I had breasts when I woke up. And it wasn't gory. It was so clean looking!

I thought it was going to be all bruised and bloody, but it looked exactly like before but with some gauze over the center.

Beth, me, and Carolyn.

The recovery was painful. And you have drains coming out of you, which are kind of gross. Each time you go to the plastic surgeon to have your expanders stretched, it's painful all over again until your body gets adjusted.

In January I had my exchange surgery where they put in the implants, and that was a walk in the park.

Then I got the nipples in March. The nipples are really just flesh at the center of my breast; they sew it in a way that protrudes like a nipple. But the colorings are not there. So after that heals, you get a tattoo that's the color of a nipple.


I Like the Way My Breasts Look

So now it's two and a half years since the reconstruction was finished, and I feel great. I feel so relieved.

I actually like the way my breasts look. I like them better than the way they looked before. And it has not affected my relationships with men at all. I've been with a few men since. And some didn't even know and I didn't bother to tell them.

I think I'm one of the fortunate ones because my breasts were not my biggest asset and not something that I identified with my beauty.

Now I help other women going through it. I give comfort and support to women who are scared out of their minds. Because I'm so at peace, I'm able to pass on some kind of security to other people.

In fact, I would say this is the best thing that ever happened to me. It kind of changed my outlook on a lot of things. It made me stronger and gave me perspective about what's really important.

There was never anything I was really passionate about in my life before, and now I found something.

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