Elizabeth Chabner Thompson knows all about breast cancer – not only from her professional experience as a radiation oncologist, but also through her family history. It was that history that led Dr. Thompson to take what some women might consider an extreme step.
In 2006, Thompson, then 38, had a preventive double mastectomy to reducer her possibility of breast cancer. Prophylactic mastectomies, as they’re also known, are an accepted part of risk-reduction strategies for breast cancer. Still, some may consider that too extreme a step and, as Thompson says, patients can be worried about their “dignity and femininity.”
But Thompson decided to take the step because of a very strong family history of breast cancer. “My mother had it, and so did my grandmother and great-grandmother,” Thompson recalls. A medical history like that, experts say, is a strong reason why women might decide to have prophylactic mastectomies.
And though we’re not used to thinking of physicians as fearful people, Thompson says that fear is exactly what she experienced when reviewing that history.
“My mother got breast cancer in her 40s,” Thompson recalled. “She was in her prime. That was very frightening to me. I have four children, and it scared me to be entering that period of my life. I’d had biopsies and MRIs and scans. It’s not if [I would get breast cancer], it’s when.” (Thompson did not test positive for the BRCA gene mutations, which greatly increase the risk of breast cancer, but her family history was a strong argument in favor of prophylactic mastectomy.)
After consulting with colleagues, Thompson chose a procedure called direct implant breast reconstruction, meaning that she underwent mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time. That eliminated the need for a second surgery—and a second recovery period.
From her experience as both a physician and a patient, Thompson knew how vulnerable, frightened and even confused people can feel when they’re in the hospital for any major operation. With that in mind, she created a product called the BFFL (Best Friends for Life).
The BFFL bag grew out of a tip sheet Thompson wrote on what patients needed to bring to the hospital. And she’s tailored each duffle for patients who are undergoing surgery for breast, gynecological or brain cancer. In addition to homey touches like soft shawls, the bags contain under-arm pillows that help women soothe the area from which lymph nodes are often taken. There’s also a place to keep hospital records and papers. And 15 percent of the net profits go to the charitable organizations Friends Fighting Breast Cancer or Sole Ryeders (the customer gets to choose).
Six years after her surgery, Thompson emphasizes that she’s happy with the decision she made. Even though the risk if cancer isn’t “reduced to zero” the fact that it’s greatly decreased has eliminated a lot of her anexiety.
She also says that even though she herself had the operation in her late 30s, women of any age can have it done if they decide it’s the right move. Thompson says consultation with a good surgeon is imperative. “The most important thing you can have,” she says, “is smart people helping you make good decisions.”
For more about Thompson’s BFFL bag, visit www.bfflco.com.