American Society of Plastic Surgeons
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Cancer survivor becomes an innovator to help others heal

Cancer was not a one-and-done diagnosis for Cinde Dolphin. Her first cancer diagnosis came at 40 when she was having difficulty breathing. Doctors ultimately identified a tumor that pinched her windpipe closed, which required the removal of one of her lungs.

"It was a rude awakening because I thought I was invincible," said Dolphin. "The thought of having a lung removed was daunting. I really thought, 'Gosh, is this going to end my athletic life?'"

Her surgeon assured her that she would regain her full athletic ability because her one lung would grow larger like a balloon as she used it more, but she would need to take her recovery slowly for that to happen properly.

She gradually increased her activity and expanded her lung capacity, allowing her to run marathons.

"It didn't limit me in the least," said Dolphin.

A second and third cancer diagnosis

Seven years later, she got a second cancer diagnosis when she found a lump in her breast. It was breast cancer, and she had a lumpectomy to remove it in addition to chemotherapy and radiation.

"I came through it feeling strong, feeling like I had dealt to me what I thought could be the worst possible thing and was able to overcome all of those difficulties and return to a lifestyle where I was really active," said Dolphin.

Yet, seven years later, a biopsy revealed an entirely different breast cancer diagnosis.

"That hit me the hardest because I thought once I had that first cancer doing chemo and radiation and having a portion of my breast removed, that had taken care of it," said Dolphin. "So, it really knocked the wind out of my sails. I have to say there was a point I was depressed."

She had a second lumpectomy to remove the cancer.

"I felt like, good, now I'm done," said Dolphin.

Cancer comes back yet again

That wasn't the last cancer diagnosis. After another seven years, a needle biopsy revealed a third type of breast cancer. It was at that point she decided to have a mastectomy.

"I said, 'This is it. Cut that breast off. Get it off. Get rid of it,'" said Dolphin. "At that point, I took a whole different perspective and had a 'bye-bye breast' party. I invited my friends over, and we saluted that breast for being there for as long as it had."

Everyone at the party brought her a pint of ice cream, so she had a supply to cheer her up while she was recovering.

Then, she met with plastic surgeon David Sahar, MD, at UC Davis Medical Center to discuss her reconstructive options.

"A breast cancer diagnosis is very bad news for patients," said Sahar. "It's a very difficult time for patients because that entails surgery and uncertainty in life. It's just very disruptive to them."

Sahar suggested she would be a better candidate for DIEP flap surgery, where surgeons use a patient's own tissue from the abdomen to rebuild a breast, but Dolphin wanted a less invasive procedure with a shorter recovery time.

"He assured me that he would check in with me all along the way and that if I wanted to do things a certain way, he would honor what I wanted," said Dolphin.

Helping others as a path to heal

Initially, Dolphin chose to begin an implant-based reconstruction so she could more quickly heal because she had big plans.

"Here I was able to survive cancer for the fourth time," said Dolphin. "It touched me so much I really wanted to do something to make the world a better place."

She was headed to Africa to volunteer with a women's microloan group called WAKA, which means "enlightening" in Swahili and "women" in the local Chagga language. Sahar supported her decision and put in a spacer to begin the reconstructive process.

"I went off to Africa for three months," said Dolphin. "Partway through that, I could tell that the skin around the spacer was compromised. I sent an email to Dr. Sahar and said I was really concerned that the skin is not looking good. He said, 'You really need to come back a little sooner.' So, I cut my stay early by a week."

Yet, she promised the women she had been working with in Africa that she would return as soon as she healed.

She and Sahar then decided she would get a DIEP flap reconstruction instead since her body was not going to be able to support an implant.

"It was a very long surgery and a long recovery from it," said Dolphin. "I still had work I wanted to do in Africa. Dr. Sahar was kind and said this has got to be the way you go in order to have a full recovery and full reconstruction."

Sahar was more than willing to work with Dolphin to accommodate her work while still providing the best possible result.

"We have to look at the outcome," said Sahar. "That's one thing we had to talk about and come up with a plan together. I always collaborate with my patients. I want to make sure they understand all the risks and benefits that it entails to make sure they make an informed decision. I am here to help them know as much as possible about the procedure before they actually make a decision."

Innovating a better way to deal with drains

The surgery took eight and a half hours. Yet, Dolphin was not in recovery long before she had an idea about how to help herself and other postoperative patients.

She had several of what she describes as hand grenade-sized drains attached to her body that were difficult to manage. Patients often have two to four of them after surgery depending on the procedure. Surgical drains are tubes that take fluid from inside the body and extend to a collection bulb outside of the body. They remove excess fluids from the surgical site while a patient heals.

"They were amazingly inconvenient, embarrassing and awkward," said Dolphin. "I figured that most people who come through these surgeries have these drains. So, I decided in that recovery area that I was going to come up with a solution that would help other people in order from them to be able to manage these drains and be able to recover faster, get more mobility, be able to shower independently."

She said the traditional solution was to pin the drains to a patient's hospital gown, but they were unsightly.

"It's as if you are putting them on display," said Dolphin. "They contain mucus and blot clots, and no one wants to see that."

Patients can sometimes catch the lines on the drains on items like doorknobs, which can tear stitches, and patients have nowhere to pin the drains when they shower. Dolphin also wanted a way to hide the drains under clothing so they were not so prominent. She knew there had to be a better way.

She began creating a wearable pouch for the drains with a canvas apron from a home repair store. She kept working on the design using laundry bags from the dollar store and input from Sahar, which included adding a zipper. In the end, she developed a mesh apron that can get wet but still protect the drains.

"Dr. Sahar was willing to give it out to a couple of the patients to see if it made a difference for them, and it came back with a really positive response," said Dolphin.

Honoring the women in Africa

She named the pouch the KILI Medical Drain Carrier in honor of the women she met in Africa who live at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Kili is the nickname the locals gave the mountain. It can accommodate not only drains but other items like cell phones and medication that a patient may need to have on hand.

Dolphin was finally able to return to Africa. She showed her drain carrier to the women she worked with there. They asked to make more drain carriers out of bright, bold local fabrics.

"They said, 'Gee, we'd love to make something out of our fabrics that will cheer up the patient and make them feel beautiful,'" said Dolphin.

The African women make and sell KILI Medical Drain Carriers not only for patients but also for local women.

"The women in Africa use them because they've got no pockets, and these aprons can hold things," said Dolphin. "They're out on the farm working and creating agricultural products and need to have something to hold things."

It allows the women who make them to have a source of income and to help others.

"Cinde has an incredibly positive outlook towards life," said Sahar. "No matter what happens, she's always focused on trying to solve problems and make things better. She's a person that channels adversity towards opportunity. She actually used her experience as a patient to come up with a device to help others."

"I want people to know that they can gain a lot from a cancer diagnosis," said Dolphin.

She said cancer tested her mettle in many ways. She wants others to understand as difficult as cancer can be, it can bring new opportunities.

The KILI Medical Drain Carrier is sold in hospital gift shops and online, but Dolphin often sends one to patients who can't afford to buy it.

To find a qualified plastic surgeon for any cosmetic or reconstructive procedure, consult a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. All ASPS members are board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, have completed an accredited plastic surgery training program, practice in accredited facilities and follow strict standards of safety and ethics. Find an ASPS member in your area.


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