SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2012

Cancer survivor chooses to stay breast-free

By Cheryl Lecesse STAFF WRITER
The Salem News

---- — SALEM — “Insubordinate Boobs Must Go.”

It’s the title of Theresa DeFrancis’ talk during a dinner event to raise breast cancer awareness held at Salem State University on Tuesday. In it, the English professor explained her decision to be breast-free.

After having a bilateral, or double, mastectomy last year, DeFrancis, 51, opted not to undergo breast reconstruction.

“What’s the point? My real ones tried to kill me,” she said of forgoing both reconstruction and prostheses. “For me, there’s no reason to go through more painful surgery.”

DeFrancis’ mastectomy was the culmination of four long years of mammograms, MRIs and painful biopsies since she was first diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ, or LCIS, a disease doctors detected after discovering a calcification in her right breast. At the time, LCIS didn’t mean cancer, but its discovery required she undergo six-month checkups and take medication in an effort to deter breast cancer.

In 2008, she learned she also had LCIS in her left breast.

“At that point, I’m thinking this is not going to turn out good for me,” said DeFrancis, who began contemplating a mastectomy even then.

A year went by with no new diagnoses. Consequently, doctors were shocked when DeFrancis tested positive for invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer, in 2010. She underwent a lumpectomy followed by five weeks of radiation. At the end of the year, doctors removed her uterus, both ovaries and both Fallopian tubes — pushing her body into menopause so she could start taking a different cancer drug in six months.

The following May, doctors found another mass. DeFrancis had had enough. No more procedures, poking and prodding — and no more breasts, she decided.

“It was liberating, because every six months was torture,” she said of her decision. “The month before I had to have the mammogram or the MRI, the tension was so high it was palpable.”

It was exhausting for her support system, too, although DeFrancis credits her wife with keeping her spirits high.

“She was never anything but fully supporting,” she said. “She let me cry. The two of us would cry together.”

Thanks to her wife, DeFrancis never went to a doctor’s appointment alone. Her wife even arranged for friends to visit from Ohio to take care of DeFrancis after her mastectomy when she couldn’t be there herself.

“We just tried to laugh as much as we could,” DeFrancis said, noting that during one oncology appointment, the doctor said it was the first time she had entered one of her exam rooms to the sound of laughter. “I would not have made it through without her.”

Today, DeFrancis is two years cancer-free. She did go under the knife one more time, for what she calls “cleanup surgery” after her mastectomy. The surgery consultation itself was an eye-opener — DeFrancis had made an appointment for reconstructive surgery purely for cosmetic touch-ups, not a new set of breasts. But in the medical field, reconstruction means rebuilding what was once there.

“When I met with the surgeon, he had his assumptions,” she said, describing how he looked immediately at her stomach when he walked in the exam room. “He was looking for fat to extract to build breasts.”

After he realized that wasn’t what DeFrancis wanted, he apologized.

“We had this really great discussion in his office about the fact that there’s not any language that explains what I opted for,” she said. “Because he was so taken aback, I thought maybe I am different. I thought maybe there aren’t a lot of people that opt to ‘go commando.’”

The experience sparked her interest in what other breast cancer survivors have chosen when faced with the decision to reconstruct, and DeFrancis hopes to write a book. Survivors willing to share their experiences can contact her at tdefrancis@salemstate.edu.

Cheryl Lecesse can be reached at 978-338-2664 or clecesse@salemnews.com.