Traumatizing

Breast cancer patients’ wishes are being ignored by their surgeons — often while they’re unconscious

Patient rights activist Kim Bowles undergoing chemotherapy treatment. (Screenshot via WTOL11/Kim Bowles.)

Kim Bowles is mad. “Set-the-world-on-fire levels of mad,” she says, in a stunning new interview with Cosmopolitan’s Catherine Guthrie, about feeling deeply betrayed by her surgeon.

Bowles says she gave explicit instructions — verbally, in writing, with a witness, and using multiple photographic examples — that she wanted to be flat-chested, with no reconstruction, after undergoing a double mastectomy for Stage 3 breast cancer. But as she came around from the anesthetic, what she saw horrified her — “two sagging pockets of empty skin on her chest.”

“My surgeon unilaterally decided to go against what I had consented to while I was on the operating room table. Motherfucker.”

This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates more than 100,000 women in the U.S. will undergo a mastectomy to treat or prevent cancer. Around 25 percent of double-mastectomy patients and 50 percent of single-mastectomy patients will opt out of reconstruction.

The problem is, many women who have been clear about their desire to be “flat” are waking up from surgery to discover they’ve nevertheless been left with unsightly, excess skin. Bowles claims she heard her surgeon tell her, “I’m just going to leave a little extra skin in case you change your mind,” as she was about to succumb to the pre-operative sedation.

Confronted about it, some surgeons have claimed the skin has been left there for medical reasons, like better range of motion. A hospital review of Bowles’ surgery stated it had been performed “optimally to give her the safest amount of extra skin to prevent jeopardizing her arm movement.”

Deanna Attai, M.D., a breast surgeon and assistant clinical professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, says: “That’s bullshit. Leaving the excess skin — it’s no easier to move the arms either way.”

Concerned medical professionals are pointing to sexism in the medical profession, and a paternalistic attitude from surgeons towards patients. Others are highlighting a lack of technical skills and experience, and the need to train more doctors to achieve a beautiful, flat result. Meanwhile, patients whose wishes were ignored are connecting via Facebook groups, to share their traumatic experiences and offer support and advice.

In June, Bowles conducted a topless sit-in outside the hospital CEO’s office … and that was just the start of her Not Putting on a Shirt campaign. She is continuing to hold her hospital’s feet to the fire, delivering a 37,000-signature petition calling for systems to be put in place to hold surgeons accountable for poor mastectomy outcomes. And on Saturday, she held the first Not Putting On A Shirt Nationwide Walk, in Cleveland, Ohio, where women marched topless to raise awareness of the issue. A march was also held in Los Angeles the same day.

Read the full story at Cosmopolitan.

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