Stylish, glam and always dressing to the nines, June Baker lives in Brunswick County on the North Carolina coast, where she's known for her poise, confidence and continual kindness.
Some know her as host of the former Novant Health branded television show, “Health Watch”, others know her as a Novant Health physician relations liaison, while others know her as wife, mother and grandmother.
But what many don’t know about June Baker is her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2021 and the battle she fought not only with the disease itself, but the confidence that was taken away – temporarily – when she got a double mastectomy.
A mammogram best way to detect breast cancer early.
A diagnosis that left her blindsided
On Dec. 16, Baker’s mammogram showed, and biopsy later confirmed, two cancerous spots in the milk duct of her right breast.
“It was like a kick in the gut,” said Baker, who was 74 at the time. “This can’t be, it just can’t. Where do I go from here?”
Baker learned from her surgeon, Dr. Mark Tillotson of Novant Health Surgical Associates in Bolivia, that she had options when it came to how much breast tissue would be removed. While all of her choices would effectively remove the cancer, she wanted to ensure she would still feel feminine and fab after her surgery.
That’s where a call to her close friend, board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Phillip Khan, came into play. Khan is an expert in reconstructive breast surgery at Novant Health Coastal Plastic Surgery in Southport.
Baker had known Khan since he was a child. She worked alongside his father, who was a surgeon at the original Brunswick Community Hospital, a few miles down the road from Brunswick Medical Center, back in 1977. His mother was a registered nurse who worked in the family practice and was the office manager for over 35 years.
He’d been her friend. Now Khan was her doctor. And she needed his input on a huge decision: Get a lumpectomy, a single mastectomy, or a bilateral mastectomy – removal of both breasts.
“My body image is important to me, and I was able to talk to him about that,” Baker said. “I’m a very active person. I like to wear bathing suits; I’m vain! He knows that. I’m very honest about who I am.”
The conversation helped her find a path. “If I had one replaced and then I had a real one, I would always be comparing those two and be unhappy that they didn’t look the same,” she said. “And things like that bother me.”
Baker decided to go with a bilateral mastectomy.
The implant journey begins
For Baker and many other women, breasts are not just a body part, they are a significant part of a woman’s body image. So implants were the right choice. The mastectomy would remove the cancer, and the reconstruction surgery would let Baker keep a body part that helps many define their femininity.
Khan was glad he could be there for Baker and help to restore her confidence in her decision and post-surgery.
“When someone’s chosen me for the reconstruction, it really is the biggest honor you can get as a human being. It’s not just ‘We think you’re a great plastic surgeon.’ They’re inviting you on that journey, and that speaks volumes,” Khan said.
Khan was alongside Tillotson for June’s first surgery. Tillotson removed the cancer and both breasts, and the plastic surgical team collaborated on an “implant-based reconstruction.”
Because there was not a lot of skin left post-mastectomy, Khan’s team surgically placed an expander. This is a saline breast implant that grows the skin outward from the inside. They filled this implant successively over the weeks following the surgery to provide pressure on the tissue, which helps to stimulate the skin to grow.
Baker returned to see Khan twice a week for three weeks (this time frame varies from patient to patient) until the expanders were removed and replaced with customizable silicone gel breast implants.
Baker laughed looking back at this part of the process. “I said, ‘I don’t want a muffin top!’” meaning she did not care to have more cleavage than she did previously.
Khan responded with a chuckle, “I'm very open about explaining your options. If June was going down a certain path, I'd be very open to say, ‘Yeah, I wouldn't choose that one.’”
Coping with day-to-day life after surgery
The implant process can weigh on the patient.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” Baker said. “You have a lot of nerve pain, and it can be sharp and shocking, which is a good thing, because your body and nerves are healing.”
Despite the confidence in her decision, Baker struggled with breast cancer, including losing her breasts and having them replaced. Although normally confident and high-energy, there were days when she did not want to get out of bed.
She credits Khan with helping her regain her footing. “Not only is he a great plastic surgeon, but he’s also a wonderful ‘psychiatrist’,” she said. “He gets you through these things. I mean, I had meltdowns in tears. When he says he sees you more often for appointments than anybody, he's not kidding. It's like every week.”
Khan explained, “You will see me more than you see your general surgeon or oncologist. I tell every patient, I’m like the Ghost of Christmas Present, Christmas Past and Christmas Future. We plan throughout your diagnosis, we plan what treatments you’re going to get, and how you’re going to be treated after.”
And in that way, the relationships Khan builds with each patient go above and beyond. Plastic reconstruction is more than just about looks, he said. “It’s about helping the patient come out on the other side feeling supported and confident in life.”
“I treat you like if you were my mom or my sister, and I mean that,” Khan said.
It’s true of Khan, Baker agreed, and her entire team at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. “The encouragement and the knowledge and the ‘Don't go overboard’ and ‘Calm down, June.’ You know it'll be okay. We'll figure this out together. It's a village, a team – we are a family here. They rally around you and that's what's wonderful about a community hospital.”