Nina McCurley, a 47-year-old divorced mother of three grown sons, underwent breast reconstruction surgery in 2009, following a double mastectomy in 2008. In an exclusive interview with Costhetics, she recounts her experience and how she feels about herself now. She’s happy to share her thoughts on how she came out resilient after her traumatic experience. This is Nina’s story.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” says Nina when asked to explain the emotional rollercoaster she’d been on since being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy. “It was really hard to look at my body before I had the breast reconstruction. It’s not only physically challenging; it’s also mentally hard. I am proud of the choices I made along the way though, and proud that I got through it. Breast cancer is so much more than the breast cancer awareness ads you see on the TV, and I was never fully prepared for the journey.
“If you were to see me now, I don’t think you’d ever know what I had gone through. There’s still a little sadness in my heart, and I have lost a little confidence in myself. But I am in very good form, really, and have gained things I would not have gained had I not been on this journey. Any insecurity that I have now is only in my mind. I walk tall and project that I am a very happy woman, which I am!”
Nina, who works as a Business Development Manager in her own business, Charizma Promotional Agency, describes herself as a keen sailor who loves the beach. She has three sons, aged 18, 20 and 22, and lives on the Central Coast in NSW. Although divorced after a 14-year marriage, she is still a good friend to her ex husband.
We interviewed Nina and asked her to tell us her incredible story:
Costhetics: Some cancers can run in families. The Cancer Council of Australia says that cancers such as breast, bowel and ovarian cancers can be caused by faulty genes from either side of the family. Was there any breast or other cancer history among blood relatives in your family, especially mother, sisters, aunts etc.?
Nina: My cancer was under the nipple on the right side. My mother died of ovarian cancer 13 years ago. We have a strong family history (of cancer), including my aunts and great grandmother and mother.
Costhetics: Tell us about the timeline, beginning with when you learnt about your breast cancer and how your treatment and breast reconstruction progressed.
Nina: I have had cancer twice. At 24 I was diagnosed with cancer in the placenta. It killed my baby girl. Then in July 2008 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 43 years old.
I underwent a double mastectomy on 9th October the same year. At the time my surgeon put in tissue expanders to save my skin for future breast reconstructive surgery.
The reconstructive surgery was done in February 2009 by my plastic surgeon, Dr Laniewski.
Costhetics: Had you considered breast surgery (reduction or enlargement) before?
Costhetics: Were you aware of breast reconstruction, that it was an option for women who have faced breast removal due to cancer?
Nina: I knew nothing. I had met a lady who had had breast reconstruction surgery, but we never spoke of it.
Costhetics: How did you learn about the option to have breast reconstruction?
Nina: I first had a lady surgeon who I didn’t connect with at all. She didn’t answer any of my questions. I had to ask Dr Laniewski any questions I had and do my own research. Dr Laniewski helped me with all my research questions and I felt safe with him and in good hands.
To find out more about breast reconstruction, I also joined groups and spoke to ladies who had had cancer and been there before. My son and I used Google to get more information.
Costhetics: How did you decide how much of your breast to have removed?
Nina: At first I booked in for a lumpectomy only. At the time I thought there was no way I could face losing my breast. I then thought about my past and my mother and it was hard to step into the realm of losing both my breasts. But then I thought ‘life versus vanity’ and it had to be good-bye to both of my breasts!
I saved my skin and chose a new size to fit my skin.
Costhetics: There are many techniques of breast reconstruction such as, flaps, stem cells, fat grafting and tissue expanders. Which were used for your operation?
Nina: I chose tissue expanders. And I felt I did the right thing. Less scarring was important to me, as I was only 43 and single.
Costhetics: How did you respond to the idea of breast reconstruction?
Nina: I never wanted to be fake, and the idea of an implant felt fake to me. I thought about being flat forever and never having a breast reconstruction. But I had been an E cup and I am totally a girly girl. I needed to come back as me at the size I had been previously. I am so happy I did.
Costhetics: How did you feel after the reconstruction surgery?
Nina: I felt fantastic! I also felt kind of myself again, even though my breasts are a slightly smaller size (a D cup) than they originally were.
Costhetics: Would you recommend reconstructive surgery to other women facing a similar situation?
Nina: Absolutely. It’s worth it.
Costhetics: If you can give a message to other women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer, what would it be?
Nina: You are still a woman in every way, regardless of what you have. Don’t ever forget that. Women who have had any form of cancer need to pat ourselves on the back that we did it and came through the other side. All women are beautiful, no matter what size or shape they come in. No one can ever take away your femininity, not even cancer.
Some women I knew tried to convince me that a man would never look at me again if I had both my breasts removed. But that was simply not true. My life hasn’t changed a bit! I have been on a number of dates with men, and none of them have mentioned my reconstructed breasts and I don’t feel this has been an issue at all.
Costhetics: What would you say to women about breast reconstruction?
Nina: Spend time with someone like Dr Laniewski and ask as many questions as you can. It is important to place your trust in your chosen doctor. If you don’t feel you can do this, find another doctor! I trusted Dr Laniewski totally, and I’m so glad I did.
Have a reconstruction. It’s amazing how advanced breast reconstruction is now! People that don’t know me would never pick that I have new breasts.
Costhetics: Please share any other thoughts and ideas you feel could be useful to others facing the same situation.
Nina: Cancer is an awful disease. It can take body parts away from you, and you can never replace them fully. But you can absolutely look almost exactly the same. So why suffer a bigger loss and not have the body reconstructed if you can?
Not one day has passed that I don’t smile about how far I have come. I thought I looked like a boy for a long time: no boobs, no hair and no eyebrows. I thought I had lost being a lady.
But I have been able to rebuild. I have a new me now, and I’m still here to watch my boys grow up, which is just so precious to me. I also think I look pretty good! My hair and eyebrows have grown back and I have new breasts! I have also since decided to have nipples constructed so I’m all woman now.
My surgeon, Dr Laniewski, is an absolute saint. I’m so lucky and grateful that I found him. He seemed to know exactly what I was going through.
Costhetics: Thank you for sharing these very personal experiences with us. They will help other women going through the same experiences as you!
You can find more information on the procedures that Nina went through in the Costhetics articles on: