From practitioner to patient: A plastic surgeon's breast reconstruction story
Emily McLaughlin's breast cancer diagnosis in 2016 transformed her from a practitioner to a patient overnight. As a plastic surgeon, she had reconstructed plenty of breasts affected by cancer. Still, she never guessed that she would need these same surgeries, putting her into a unique category of providers.
"I'm a plastic surgeon, and I've had plastic surgery for breast cancer," said McLaughlin.
It started with a mammogram
McLaughlin's journey with breast cancer started, as many do, with a routine check-up. She was not experiencing any symptoms, such as lumps or discharge, and had no idea there was a problem.
"I had a screening. I ordered my own mammogram just to check that off my list. And as a physician, you get your own reports. I've signed off on my own mammogram for years. Normal, done, see you next year," said McLaughlin. "And this time, on the left side, it was new or increasing calcifications. I thought, 'Wow, who knew? Who would've thought? Need additional views.'"
McLaughlin said she felt anxious about the additional views, but I still believed it was nothing to be worried about. But after they were completed, the radiologist invited her to see them.
"When you have cancer, you get escorted, apparently, to look at the views," said McLaughlin.
It turned out that McLaughlin needed a biopsy, and getting it left her distraught.
"So, I had a biopsy, and I cried," she said. "I lay there, and I cried because I thought, 'What? This is awful. I'm terrified.' I was so scared. I remember laying there going, 'How many patients have I sent for a biopsy?'"
Becoming more compassionate
Her biopsy experience changed everything for McLaughlin regarding how she related to patients in similar situations. Knowing firsthand how emotional the experience can be, she now offers more support than ever to those she treats.
"Yesterday, I talked to a patient that needs a biopsy," said McLaughlin. "I said, 'I'll go if you need me to be there.'"
McLaughlin said becoming a patient helped her better understand the emotional and physical needs of the women who come to her for breast reconstruction after cancer.
Offering advice to patients
"As part of my practice, you have a breast cancer patient, and invariably patients ask, 'What would you do?'" And I always hesitated because it seems like, to borrow from a legal term, you're leading the witness." said McLaughlin. "If I tell you what I'm going to do, you're going to do what I said, and that may not be right for you."
After her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent reconstructive surgery, McLaughlin said she was in a better position than before to offer advice to her patients based on what she had gone through with her breast cancer journey.
"I'm like, ask about this. Is pre-pectoral an option? Is this an option? Here's what you need to ask about," said McLaughlin. "Knowledge is power."
Facing breast reconstruction
When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, McLaughlin's radiologist told her it was high-grade ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), which is sometimes called pre-cancer because it can become invasive cancer if it's not treated.
Her next call was to Danielle LeBlanc, MD, a colleague and a good friend, who knew McLaughlin had the biopsy. She asked her friend to find out if she was a candidate for a double mastectomy and implant reconstruction. It turned out she was, and she had surgery three weeks later.
"I mean, as vain as I am head to toe, I never wanted cancer, and I needed cancer gone," said McLaughlin. "I never even thought about it. There are magnificent flaps and wonderful different options. For me, it never occurred to me. I said, just double mastectomy and implants, and we're done."
It's been several years since McLaughlin's cancer was eradicated – an event she acknowledges each year on June 22, which she calls her "cancerversary."
"I've had six operations. I never needed chemotherapy. I never needed radiation," said McLaughlin. "So, I'm blessed, and I'm good, I'm healthy, and I'm well, and I'm happy. And I made a great decision, and I share that with everyone."
Cancer gave her more than it took
McLaughlin said being a patient made her more compassionate towards women in similar situations and helped her find a voice in breast cancer and a platform.
She started a nonprofit – Fighting Right – which raises money for many women's issues, including breast cancer.
"It's part of my story," said McLaughlin. "I think cancer somehow gave me more than it took away, and no one can say that. So, I don't say that in a cavalier fashion, but it's opened my eyes to a lot of things."
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.