The difficult journey of a mastectomy patient


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MILFORD, Pa. -- Once Natalie Blumberg made the challenging decision to have her uterus, ovaries and both of her breasts removed, she thought the hard part was over.

The Milford, Bucks County, mom never anticipated the difficult and life-changing journey that lay ahead.

"I don't think I went into it without educating myself. However, I really was naive," Ms. Blumberg said. "I knew the information about how the process would be. I didn't know how emotionally and physically draining it would be. I just wasn't prepared for the reality of this."

Though the 41-year-old woman has never been diagnosed with cancer, she chose to undergo a radical double-mastectomy and hysterectomy as a pre-emptive strike against cancer.

As actress Angelina Jolie decided to undergo the same procedure when she was cancer-free, Ms. Blumberg felt she too was making the best choice for herself and her child.

At the urging of her doctor, Ms. Blumberg sought genetic testing last year due to her family's medical history.

Along with other relatives who have been struck with cancer, the woman's great-grandmother died of ovarian cancer. Ms. Blumberg's mother underwent a single mastectomy and lymph nodes removal after being diagnosed with cancer in her breast and lymph nodes at age 23.

She received her results from Myriad Genetics in July. The test confirmed that the woman carries the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which strongly increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

According to the test, Ms. Blumberg had an 87 percent chance of developing those cancers. A double-mastectomy and hysterectomy would drop her cancer risk to 5 percent, she said.

The average person has about a 10 percent risk of developing cancer in their lifetime, according to Ron Rogers, spokesman for Utah-based Myriad Genetics.

Over the next couple of months, Ms. Blumberg, who was healthy and fit, felt confident about the procedures ahead.

"I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. I was out there being positive and strong and happy," said Ms. Blumberg, who blogged about her journey.

She underwent a total hysterectomy in September and healed quickly.

"The rest of the experience was much more difficult," she said.

A couple of days before her next surgery, fear and doubt set in and she was ready to back out of the decision to remove her breasts, but her family encouraged her to push forward.

On Nov. 20, doctors at St. Luke's Hospital's Anderson campus performed her double-mastectomy.

When she awoke from her surgery and peeked down her hospital gown, she burst into tears.

The petite woman -- who had naturally been an "F" bra cup size -- was now smaller than an "A" cup size.

"I looked down and saw my stomach, and I was never able to see my stomach.

"That really shocked me. I remember I started to cry because I felt so different and looked so different," she said. "The first words I said were, 'Why did I do this to myself?' I really had deep regret."

What followed were dark days for this single mom. Worst of all, her hope to be a strong example for her 12-year-old daughter was overshadowed by her struggle to cope, said Ms. Blumberg.

"I wanted to be a strong example. I failed at that miserably. There were days that in front of her I just lost it. I have a lot of guilt about that, but when you're in these moments it's so dark and so painful you can't be strong," she said.

A month after her surgery, Ms. Blumberg spent the holidays in the hospital battling sepsis. The infection nearly killed her, she said.

But a laboratory report brought peace of mind. Tests of her removed breast tissue revealed that cancer had already begun to form in her right breast.

Despite all of the physical pain and emotional trauma, Ms. Blumberg knew she had made the right decision.

"The BRAC test saved my life," she said of the genetic testing.

There have also been some silver linings to this stormy journey. Her preteen daughter became her biggest encourager, and their bond is stronger than ever.

"It was crazy to see the strength she has that I never knew existed," she said of Bella, a student at St. Isidore School in Quakertown.

In addition, her surgeon determined that she is a candidate for breast implant surgery and has even offered to pay for the full cost of implants because it is not covered under her health insurance.

Ms. Blumberg is employed as a social media consultant for business clients. Her experiences have inspired her to consider a career change. The support she received from her family, friends, medical staff and women across the world through online forum Beyond the Pink Moon has left her wanting to help others.

"I'm 100 percent different now. The things that were important to me in July mean nothing to me now," she said. "I've always been concerned about the title of my job, how much money I make and how it looks to other people. None of that matters. Now, I want to get my hands dirty. It's changed me."


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