Last year, Liz Mattson, 48, was diagnosed with melanoma. Nine days later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Both cancers were caught early – at routine annual screenings, in fact.
The Huntersville resident – who rescues Chow Chows and plays disc golf – was less surprised than you might think to have two unrelated cancers at the same time. She’s the fifth person in her family, over the course of three generations, to have those unlikely dual diagnoses.
Having a sense of humor has helped her (and every Mattson before her) get through it. “When it comes to cancer, we Mattsons know what we’re doing,” a cousin reminded her. And Mattson, a technical project manager at Bank of America, treated this like any other project. She learned all she could about her cancer and her options and developed a plan … and then a contingency plan.
Her surgeon’s biggest fan
She “hit the jackpot,” she said, with her medical team, including plastic surgeon, Dr. Blair Wormer of Novant Health Appel Plastic Surgery. “He was calm and clear in explaining his approach,” she said. “He told me all the risks and every possible complication. He never talked down to me. I want to start a fan club for him.”
Because Mattson didn’t want implants, her oncological surgeon, Dr. Lori Gentile of Novant Health Carolina Surgical, referred her to Wormer, who’s pioneered a new-to-Charlotte approach to breast reconstruction. Deep inferior epigastric artery perforator (DIEP) flap surgery is a technique where skin and tissue are taken from the abdomen – resulting in the same effect a “tummy tuck” would have – to re-create the breast.
The procedure is sometimes performed at the same time as the mastectomy, but Mattson had two different procedures – the mastectomy on Jan. 14 and the DIEP flap procedure (delayed due to COVID-19) June 3.
“This is an incredible reconstructive option for women with unwanted excess abdominal tissue that can be used to recreate new breasts after a mastectomy,” Wormer said. “Reconstructive plastic surgeons always aim to replace ‘like with like’ tissue, and a patient’s own tissue will always beat a prosthetic implant.”
“Although for most women implants are the best or only option, the DIEP surgery is an option in patients with a good match of abdominal tissue excess to breast size,” he continued. “However, it requires a ‘pay-it-forward’ mentality because it is a longer initial surgery, with a two-day hospitalization and a longer recovery than implant reconstruction.”
Mattson’s breast cancer was caught early. It was stage 1A, and the tumor was 1.5 centimeters. She had the genetic testing and was “all good,” she said. But she chose a double mastectomy, rather than a more conservative approach, because of her dense breasts.
“Dense breasts are a risk factor for cancer,” she said. “My breasts are so dense that no one – not my OB, not Dr. Wormer – could even feel my tumor, even though it was pretty close to the skin.”
Gentile said dense breasts are “one of many risk factors for breast cancer. Dense breasts are common in all women in their 40s or younger. Our breasts are dense when we’re young and become less dense as we age. Dense breasts can make cancer harder to detect on a mammogram.”
“I was a great candidate for a lumpectomy and radiation,” she said. “But I’m pale. I can be outside for 10 minutes and burn. So, radiation, with the possibility of burns, didn’t appeal to me. I did my homework on the issue. Dr. Wormer told me 90% of women opt for implants. I didn’t mind being in the 10% to get the flap. I’m happy with the ‘free’ tummy tuck.”
‘The big benefit’
When the breast is reconstructed entirely with a woman’s own tissue, the results are generally very natural looking. “The big benefit though, is in the long-term where there is less revision/replacement surgery compared to implants,” Wormer said. “Prosthetics are only meant to last so long. In patients willing to go through a bigger surgery upfront, they have the potential to undergo less revisionary surgery in their lifetime, which can be frequent in reconstructive breast surgery.”
Mattson is happy with her results and likes wearing a B-cup bra now. She had been a C-cup and said, “I’m 5-feet tall. The old boobs just got in the way.”
She gets a kick out of wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Yes, they’re fake. My real ones tried to kill me.”
Mattson described the recovery as “easy” and said she never needed anything stronger than Tylenol or Advil for pain. She was out of work for eight weeks. “I drank tons of water,” she said. “I walked around my neighborhood. I took naps in the afternoon.”
The melanoma was also removed, and she didn’t require any further treatment for it.
Last October, Mattson got a melanoma diagnosis (Oct. 9), celebrated her birthday (Oct. 12), had a mammogram (Oct. 18), had the melanoma removed (Oct. 21), had a breast biopsy (Oct. 24) and then got her second cancer diagnosis on Oct. 28. This October, Mattson plans to celebrate her birthday – all month long.