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Breast Cancer Survivor Feeling Her Best After Surgery

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There comes a point in extreme distance running where the only thing you think about is putting one foot in front of the other and finishing the next mile.

That’s how Shannon Van Deusen, from Albany, completed a 50-mile race in October 2018, the longest race of her life. She had been training hard and was in peak physical condition when she discovered a lump in her left breast.

Then 42 years old, and with no direct family history of breast cancer, Van Deusen didn’t automatically assume the worst. But when the lump didn’t go away, she called her doctor’s office for an appointment. A mammogram was scheduled, and the results were suspicious. A follow-up ultrasound and biopsy were ordered, but these tests would be done after her race.

As Van Deusen ran, she thought about the possibility of cancer, but she didn’t dwell on it. Even with the growing concern, doubt did not overshadow her accomplishment as she crossed the finish line beating her previous time by almost 45 minutes.

“It was a great day,” Van Deusen recalled.

But she couldn’t outrun cancer.

Van Deusen soon learned that she had triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive but treatable form of breast cancer, bringing uncertainty, fear and pain. Not only was she facing a life-threatening diagnosis, but the treatment is also a disfiguring operation.

Deciding on Restorative Surgery

As a local hairdresser for 20 years, many of Van Deusen’s clients have had breast cancer and reconstructive surgery. It was based on the positive experiences of others that she chose to receive all of her treatment in her hometown of Albany.

“I have had no regrets whatsoever,” Van Deusen said.

Early on, Van Deusen decided that she wanted to have reconstructive surgery after chemotherapy and a double mastectomy. 

“I wanted my clothes to fit and feel normal,” she said.

Based on the recommendations of her clients and friends, Van Deusen met with reconstructive surgeon Kevin Day, MD, of Samaritan Plastic, Reconstructive & Hand Surgery. Dr. Day reviewed before and after photos of the options available with Van Deusen and explained the different procedures.

Based on the location of Van Deusen’s tumor near her armpit, she was able to have a nipple-sparing mastectomy, a procedure where a woman’s nipple is retained and the incisions are made on the underside to hide the scars for a more natural look.

In the same surgery as Van Deusen’s mastectomy, Dr. Day placed temporary tissue expanders. After a few weeks, fluid is added to increase the volume and stretch the skin to the correct size. This also allows time for healing and to create an internal pocket of scar tissue that will support the implant.

During her recovery, Van Deusen and her family vacationed at Disneyland to celebrate that the worst part was over. Then when summer ended and her daughters were back in school, Van Deusen had the second surgery with Dr. Day to put the implants in place. There are many individual factors to consider in deciding on breast reconstruction, but Van Deusen and her surgeon agreed this was the best option for her active lifestyle. Shannon’s reconstruction was performed above her pectoralis major muscle, rather than below it, a new approach that carries a higher patient satisfaction rate than the traditional approach of placing the implant under the muscle.

Van Deusen recalled Dr. Day’s kindness during a post-operative appointment last fall when he noticed the side effects of an oral chemotherapy drug she was taking to reduce the chances of cancer recurring. Her hands and feet were blistering, cracking and peeling.

Dr. Day was concerned, and after checking with the oncology team, he gave Van Deusen lotions to help with the symptoms.

“He didn’t have to do that,” she said. “He wants you to feel your best and look your best.”

Putting One Foot in Front of the Other

The goal of surviving and returning to an active lifestyle was a motivating factor in Van Deusen’s recovery. Now when she heads out the door, it’s with a sense of gratitude and purpose.

It’s been just over a year since she completed breast reconstruction surgery. Van Deusen, now 44, is almost back to the running form she was in before the devastating diagnosis. She’s training for her next 50-mile race, running with her sister Dawn Knoll, and she’s resumed an elite fitness routine. She’s back to work and coaching her daughters in volleyball and softball.

No matter how far or how fast she runs, Van Deusen is thankful for every step, for being here to see all the people who supported her on her journey.

Van Deusen is open to talking about her decision to have breast reconstruction surgery.

“I feel like knowledge is power,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Van Deusen also doesn’t take things for granted, especially her health.

“I am thankful for every single day I wake up and feel well,” she said.

Learn more about services available at Samaritan Plastic, Reconstructive & Hand Surgery at samhealth.org/Beauty.