DANVILLE – After a mastectomy in 2006, Ruth Gonzalez was reminded of her battle with breast cancer every time she saw that scar across her chest.
After reconstructive surgery on her left breast, however, she feels like a new woman — ready to move ahead instead of dwelling on the past.
“It really picked up my spirits,” Gonzalez, 62, of Danville said. “It’s nice when you have your equipment back where it belongs.”
Although she endured a lot of pain from the surgery, she would do it again — that’s how much it’s changed her life.
Gonzalez is one of dozens of breast cancer survivors who have benefited from reconstructive surgery performed by Dr. Susan Schneider.
Schneider, a board certified plastic surgeon, is based in Joliet, but she travels to Danville once a week to see patients from the area. Presence United Samaritans Medical Center provides her office space and staff, and the surgeries are performed at Presence.
Schneider has more than 100 patients — about 70 percent come for reconstructive breast surgery and about 30 percent have breast reduction or some type of cosmetic surgery, she said. She’s the only one doing this type of surgery in the area, including Champaign and Urbana, she said.
A woman who has received a breast cancer diagnosis will see a general surgeon, who will discuss options such as a lumpectomy (a small volume of breast tissue containing the tumor is removed) or mastectomy (removal of one or both breasts).
“Women are more open to a mastectomy if they know the reconstruction is available,” she said. Reconstructive surgery rebuilds the breast so it’s about the same size and shape as before.
Sometimes, the reconstruction can start during the mastectomy, which prevents additional anesthesia for the patient. At that time, temporary implants are put in; a second surgery will put in final implants, touch up scars and do other work.
While immediate reconstructive work has its benefits, the work can be done at any time, Schneider said. For example, a woman who had a mastectomy 10 years ago could still get reconstructive work if she qualified.
Not everyone is a candidate for reconstructive surgery. Whether a patient is a smoker, in good health, had radiation, and other factors are weighed to see if that person would benefit. The goal is to make sure a woman looks nice in her clothing and she’s symmetrical, and, she said, “to get things back to normal as much as possible.”
Reconstructive surgery has been around about 20 years, Schneider said, and the results have been good. Of course, she added, “It’s unrealistic to expect as good as the old one, but we can get pretty close.”
There’s also a push to educate women about their options, she said.
“We’ve been making more of an effort to let women know their options and be in control of what they want to do.”
Schneider has had more than 14 years of experience and has performed more than 500 breast reconstructive surgeries.
Gonzalez’s journey started in 1999, when a mammogram found some unusual cells on her left side. However, the technicians didn’t think she had anything to worry about. Later mammograms showed similar results.
She did have a hysterectomy when ovarian cysts were found.
After returning to her hometown of Danville from Portland, Ore., in 2003, Gonzalez skipped a mammogram one year. Then, in March 2005, two cysts on her left breast were found. An ultrasound and biopsy revealed breast cancer. She went through radiation, chemotherapy and a lumpectomy.
The treatments damaged her breast tissue so much that she decided to have a mastectomy in July 2006, and wore a prosthesis.
Gonzalez considered breast reconstruction, but she didn’t want to travel to Indianapolis or Springfield. Then, a couple of years ago, she saw an ad about Schneider practicing in Danville, and she made an appointment.
In April 2012, Gonzalez underwent the surgery, which involved taking muscle and skin from her back to build up the left breast. (There was no cancer in the right breast.) Silicone implants also were used.
Gonzalez describes herself as a “tough old bird,” but the pain after surgery was unbelievable. That pain ended in time, and, she said, “I’d be first in line to have it done again – it was so gratifying.”
Once the healing was under way, Gonzalez couldn’t believe the difference. Her left breast looks natural, and that’s restored her confidence.
The only problem is that she was overweight when she had the surgery, and so her new breast was made to conform to her body. Since then, she has lost 60 pounds and later will have more surgery to bring the breasts into line with the rest of her body and to make them match.
The reconstruction doesn’t erase what she went through with cancer, but she said, “It just puts it on the shelf where it belongs. It turns that clock back to where it belongs.”
Gonzalez also has high praise for Schneider, saying, “I love her. She does wonderful stuff. She’s a blessing for here.”
As for her breasts now, Gonzalez said, “They look great. The visual puts a period at the end of the sentence.”
She also urges other breast cancer patients to consider the surgery. Once the pain ends, she said, the result is well worth it — and looks so natural.
FYI Learn more at the American Cancer Society website, www.cancer.org and Dr. Susan Schneider's site, www.schneiderplasticsurgery.com. Her office is located in the Medical Office Building at 800 N. Logan Ave., on the campus of Presence United Samaritans Medical Center.