Tammy Monroe was used to false alarms during her annual mammograms. She has cystic breasts, which often led to biopsies with a benign diagnosis.
Cystic breasts typically have fluid-filled, round or oval sacs within them. They can be tender to the touch. They’re most prevalent in women in their 30s or 40s but can occur in women of any age.
“I think I had my first biopsy when I was, maybe, 26,” Monroe recalls. “Yes, I’ve had lumps here and there.”
In the spring of 2022, Monroe felt a new lump in her left breast just days before her annual mammogram. She figured it was nothing to worry about, as had always been the case. Still, during her appointment, she mentioned the new growth to the imaging technician.
“She’s like, ‘Oh, where?,’ Monroe says. “I told her. She went out. She comes back and says, ‘We’re gonna change this from just a screening to a diagnostic.’”
After a series of imaging tests with a radiologist and a follow-up needle biopsy in which the specialist obtained a sample of Monroe’s breast cells for laboratory testing, Monroe received unsettling news.
“It was, like, two days later that he called and said that it was not good. It was cancer,” Monroe says. A follow-up MRI revealed another abnormality. This one was in Monroe’s right breast.
Breast surgery and reconstruction
Monroe, who lives in Manitowoc, was referred to Aurora BayCare General & Vascular Surgery in Green Bay for breast surgery.
“I had decided I wanted a double mastectomy … with reconstruction,” she says. “I mean, I didn’t really even think about the reconstruction and whether my insurance was going to pay for it or not. That’s what I wanted.”
Federal law mandates insurance coverage of breast reconstruction surgery for most breast cancer patients, even if reconstruction is delayed until after cancer treatment is completed. Monroe’s breast reconstruction would be covered by her insurance provider.
“It was very reassuring (to hear that) because I was going to do it whether insurance paid for it or not,” Monroe says. “To know that the insurance had to pay for it took a lot off my shoulders – having to think financially how I would do this if insurance didn’t pay for it. … I wouldn’t have to worry about that part of it, at least, through the whole process.”
A breast surgeon performed Monroe’s double mastectomy. Dr. Steven C. Schmidt, a plastic surgeon with Plastic Surgery & Skin Specialists by BayCare Clinic, was part of the surgical team.
“Dr. Schmidt was in there to start the reconstruction process,” Monroe says, explaining that she’d opted to have both procedures – breast removal and reconstruction – done during the same surgical experience.
Both procedures were successful. Today, she’s physically healthy.
“I have scars,” she says, “but that’s part of me now that shows what I went through and what I got past.”
Emotionally, though, Monroe is still recovering.
“The healing process takes a while,” she says. “You feel the bumps and you feel lumps and every time you feel something else it’s like, oh, did (cancer) come back somewhere else? But I was fortunate. I did not have to go through the chemotherapy or the radiation. It was caught early enough that it was completely cleared.”
Return to normalcy
Breast reconstruction, including areola tattooing, offered Monroe a return to personal, physical normalcy.
“I was so excited about having them, I went to my daughter’s after that, I mean, I had to show her,” she says, laughing.
“I am very happy with it. I didn’t think that it would matter but … it makes me feel whole again,” she says. “I couldn’t see myself going from where I was, down to nothing. I did not hesitate to go for the reconstruction.”
She offers advice to others considering breast reconstruction during or after breast surgery.
“Don’t be afraid of it. It does give you that sense of wholeness again,” she says. “I didn’t think that it would matter, but in the end it does.”