By the time I met Dr. Orringer, I was already a long-time veteran of mastectomy and breast reconstruction. I first got off the elevator and walked into the warmth of Dr. Orringer’s office two years ago. I was forty-five years old, battle-scarred—physically and metaphorically—and seeking help.
My mother had died a brutal death to ovarian cancer twelve years earlier, when I was thirty-three. Shortly after my mother’s death, I took a cutting-edge blood test and tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation—which meant I had up to a 90% chance of breast cancer and up to a 50% chance of ovarian cancer.
In 2004, the BRCA test was still so new that doctors did not know how to advise me. They said it was a case of “science outpacing their ability to know what to do with the data.” I was single, yearning for children, and statistically assured of getting breast cancer—unless I pre-emptively removed my breasts. Taking that action was considered radical at the time.
I spent a year being my own medical advocate—interviewing doctors around the country, doing research—and obsessing over what to do. Because I’m a writer, I wrote my way through it—publishing a New York Times article about the burden of knowledge—“Cancer and the Maiden.”
As I described in the article, I knew my mother would have done anything to live. Inspired by my mom, I opted to safeguard my health, and remove my breasts in a pre-emptive strike.
I had done so much research, so much due diligence, that by the time I checked myself into NYU hospital for my mastectomy, I felt I couldn’t be more prepared. I was wrong.
I made many mistakes along the way. My natural breast size was a 34-D. But I had lost a lot of weight after my mother died, and had the notion to reconstruct my body in the image of Audrey Hepburn—breast size A. It didn’t occur to me that as my heart healed, my body would return to a normal weight. Or that as I aged, my metabolism would change, and that size-A breasts would look disproportionate and strange.
Ultimately, I was so unhappy with my breast reconstruction results that I chose to re-do the whole thing two years later at Lenox Hill hospital. This time, I selected a larger breast size, but the results were just as disappointing. My breasts were misshapen, rippling, and the classic mastectomy scars that ran in horizontal lines across my breasts were pronounced. Although I was disappointed with my results, I decided to live with them. So my reconstructed breasts were not beautiful? I had the most important things: my health and a daughter. (I had gone to the sperm bank and had a baby on my own.) Although I decided to stick with my misshapen breasts, I wanted to minimize the scars, so I went to see a famed Beverly Hills dermatologist who was a purported expert at laser scar removal. This man took no time or care with me—his only interest (in retrospect) was to test his new lasers on my scars. I had asked him to use the V-beam, but he insisted on using newer technology—which went awry. The dermatologist proceeded to laser third-degree burns into both of my breasts, disfiguring me. His response: a shrug. It was appalling. I subsequently spent a month at a wound-care clinic at Cedar Sinai. I was physically and emotionally wrecked.
It took me several years to muster the strength to meet a new plastic surgeon, to try and fix my disfigured breasts. I had heard glowing things about Dr. Orringer—but I had already been burned by so many doctors that my expectations were low.
From the moment I entered Dr. Orringer's office, I felt my heavy depression lifting. I was greeted by Ana Marie and Padi—his long-time staff—and they embraced me as if I was a long-lost family member. As the adage goes, "It starts at the top"—the warmth I felt from Ana Marie and Padi was not an accident. Minutes later I would meet Dr. Jay Orringer—the kindest man I have ever met.
Jessica Queller is a TV writer/producer, author, and women’s health advocate.