By Cheryl Lecesse STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — BEVERLY — Plastic surgery is an art, especially for Dr. Beverly Shafer.
Shafer, who has been in practice on the North Shore for 22 years, frequently works with breast cancer patients. But before deciding to go to medical school, Shafer was an artist with a particular affinity for Michelangelo and his anatomical works of art.
She studied for her anatomy class by drawing anatomical sketches, photocopying them and sharing them with her classmates.
“It was the best combination of two worlds because we all got straight A’s,” she said.
Eventually, she decided that medical school was the better bet.
“There’s only so many fine artists, and I wanted to do something that I could excel at,” she said.
Originally from New Mexico, Shafer completed her training through Harvard-affiliated hospitals. She found a passion for plastic surgery thanks to Dr. Rusty Quinto, with whom she had done a nasal reconstruction on a man whose nose was shot off during the Vietnam War. Shafer found inspiration in Quinto, who also had a side job designing costumes for the Muppets.
“I realized how creative and innovative plastic surgery could be,” she said, calling it a combination of artistic temperament, three-dimensional painting and science.
Today, with a private practice based in Beverly’s Cummings Center, Shafer does many other procedures, including cosmetic surgery and body contouring after massive weight loss. But she’s also worked with many area women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, performing breast surgery and reconstruction.
Some breast cancer patients come to Shafer through word-of-mouth.
Others are referred to her from their primary care physicians. Shafer said many women feel comfortable coming to her because she’s a female surgeon.
When she first began practicing on the North Shore, Shafer said there weren’t many surgeons in the area offering breast reconstruction.
“I think I might have been the first person to bring some of the newer techniques, which I think now are commonplace,” she said.
In the early 1990s, Shafer helped start a breast cancer center at Salem Hospital. And in late 1998, she was an advocate for legislation that ensured health insurance agencies would pay for breast reconstruction.
“It’s always been one of my favorite areas,” said Shafer, who called her work with breast cancer patients gratifying. “I like taking care of these women because it’s obviously a critical time period in their lives, but I can offer them a silver lining.”
Shafer explained that after a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer, she sees them as soon as possible.
“I try to see them within a couple of days because there’s so many questions and confusion and concerns,” she said.
The consultation is a long discussion, she said, in which she explains the procedures, shows the patients photographs of her previous work and goes over options for implants.
“I do a lot of drawing in my consultations,” Shafer said, including drawing for the patient what the scars will look like. “Almost universally, people are much more relaxed by the time they leave and realize it’s not as frightening a thing.”
The biggest concern a breast cancer patient has?
“Getting rid of the cancer, of course,” she said. “And then it’s like, what are they going to look like afterwards.”
That’s where photographs and drawings help.
“I think that, in showing people what they can look like afterwards, giving them a lot of different examples, it’s reassuring to people that the reconstruction results can be pretty good these days.”
Shafer said she does her best to complete her reconstruction work immediately after the mastectomy, so the patient only has to endure one surgery.
“People psychologically do a lot better when they wake up with something there,” she said, noting that, in some cases, a patient would require a second, or a rare third, follow-up surgery.
All surgeries are covered by health insurance, Shafer said.
While “never perfect,” reconstruction techniques get women to a point where they can feel comfortable wearing gym clothing, and observers would never know they had a mastectomy, Shafer said.
She sticks with her patients until they’re well on their way to recovery.
“It’s a sad day,” she said, of when her patient no longer needs follow-up care, “but it’s great to see them moving on in their lives.”
In some cases, Shafer sees patients who are unhappy with their breast reconstruction, like Peabody resident Sherri Temkin. Temkin had undergone a double mastectomy, and doctors used a method in which part of her abdomen was cut and used to reconstruct her breasts. Temkin said that after her surgery it looked like she had a tire around her stomach.
“She’s very, very compassionate,” Temkin said of Shafer. “She guaranteed me she could fix it.”
“That definitely happens where not everybody has the result that they’re looking for,” she said. “It’s an area that I enjoy because it’s complex ... to go back into a given surgical situation and to try to remedy that, it’s a delicious challenge and privilege.”
She also frequently attends conferences to learn about cutting-edge breast reconstruction techniques, such as the one she’s currently at in New Orleans. As president of the Massachusetts Society of Plastic Surgery, Shafer said she’s always looking for speakers to give talks and hold training sessions in Massachusetts.
“It’s another reason to be in the Boston area, because we’ve got absolutely marvelous innovators in our own locale,” she said.
Cheryl Lecesse can be reached at 978-338-2664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.