Laura McNeill considers herself one of the lucky ones. After finding out she had breast cancer, she could turn to friends who’d experienced both cancer treatment and breast reconstruction surgery. “The doctor can only tell you so much — other people can tell you so much more,” she says.
This first-hand knowledge, coupled with the expertise of her surgeon, allowed McNeill to make educated choices about her surgery. She opted to have breast reconstruction at the same time as cancer surgery (a double mastectomy) to reduce the number of surgeries she would need to undergo. “I wanted to be one and done,” she says. Four years later, McNeill remains happy with her choice — and has no signs of metastasis.
Not all breast cancer patients are as aware of what’s available to them, says Calgary surgeon Dr. Claire Temple-Oberle, who performed McNeill’s reconstruction.
“Patients still come to us and say, ‘I never knew I could have breast reconstruction [at the time of cancer surgery].’” But, by waiting until after their cancer treatment to look into reconstruction, patients miss out on a number of surgical options (the use of their own skin and preservation of their nipples, for instance).
The survival rate for female breast cancer patients in Alberta is 90 per cent.
Hoping to empower patients with greater knowledge, Temple-Oberle helped bring Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day (BRA Day) to Calgary five years ago (it has since spread to Edmonton and Medicine Hat, too). Supported by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, and recognized as an international event, BRA Day brings together patients, survivors, and health-care practitioners for a day of education and connection.
“We’re trying to normalize the conversation around breast reconstruction,” says Temple-Oberle. “We want people to know it’s not breast augmentation — it’s a part of breast cancer care that focuses on survivorship and quality of life. The goal is to give women good-quality, reliable information to help them make decisions.”
McNeill began volunteering for BRA Day three years ago and now organizes the Calgary event, which draws hundreds of people to the Foothills Medical Centre every October. In addition to lectures for both medical professionals and patients, the event offers patients the chance to speak with physicians about reconstruction options, as well as with survivors who’ve had breast reconstruction. The day is meant to support patients of all genders (not just women), as well as partners seeking information on how to better support them.
“I hope patients will walk away with a comfort in knowing their options,” says McNeill.
BRA Day Highlights
Show and Tell Lounge for Patients
Breast cancer patients meet with survivors who tell their stories and discretely share the results of their breast reconstruction surgeries (or mastectomies, if they’ve opted to be flat-chested).
Show and Tell Lounge for Partners
Partners of current patients connect with partners of breast cancer survivors to learn more about how they can be a support during treatment. The lounge is open to partners of all genders and sexual orientations.
BRA Day events typically include a group art project. At the 2017 event, for instance, participants painted small tiles to contribute to a mosaic to be displayed at the Foothills Hospital. Another year, artists painted body casts of survivors, who presented the artwork and shared their stories.