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Laughter Eases Reconstruction

Julie Hunter and husband

February 22, 2019

Julie Hunter, 64, sensed something was amiss in her family tree. Cancer had affected too many of her relatives. In 2016, she and her 2 brothers signed up for genetic testing.

Together, they learned that a rare mutation of the CDH1 gene is prevalent in their family. The faulty gene puts them at high risk for developing stomach cancer and lobular breast cancer.

"Not many doctors know about CDH1," explains Julie. "I needed to find a qualified cancer center."

Her husband, Steve, suggested The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Breast experts

Breast surgeon Jamie Wagner, DO, explained all the options, but Julie knew what she wanted. "With my family history, I went for the double mastectomy," she says.

During the surgery in June 2017, Dr. Wagner also discovered a large mass in Julie’s right breast that had not been visible on the MRI scan. Removal of her right breast went from being preventive to medically necessary. 

Reconstruction zone

Julie also worked closely with the breast reconstruction team, led by plastic surgeon Julie Holding, MD. "Breast reconstruction surgery is a process," explains Dr. Holding. "First, our breast surgeons take care of the cancer. If the patient would like reconstruction, we can place a tissue-expander during mastectomy surgery. It’s a spacer that preserves the skin during recovery."

Over the next several months, Julie returned to the plastic surgery clinic for "weekly fills." Saline solution was slowly added to the expanders to make room for artificial breast implants. That’s when Julie and Steve developed a special bond with Christie Kovalcik, BSN, RN.

"Christie was our wonderful nurse," says Julie. "Her laughter and huge smile were infectious."

Julie describes breast reconstruction as "pretty easy" for her. "I think it was more difficult for my husband," she says.

"Christie helped change his fear into laughter. He looked forward to our visits with Christie as much as I did." Christie appreciated the Hunters’ sense of humor. Julie wore a handmade "Reconstruction Zone" T-shirt to her implant surgery. And Steve joked about the size of the implants.

"Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying," Christie says.

Christie was our wonderful nurse. Her laughter and huge smile were infectious. – Julie Hunter

Breast cancer patient

Julie’s breast reconstruction surgery took place in September 2017. "When the patient is happy with the size of their tissue expanders, we move to the second stage of reconstruction. We remove the expanders during a second surgery and fill the space with either implants or tissue from the patient’s abdomen or thighs. This is what is considered the foundation of reconstruction," Dr. Holding says.

"After this stage, the breasts still need to be refined with additional surgeries to create a more natural shape and contour," she says. "The patient guides the reconstruction process and number of surgeries. Realistically, most patients have an additional 1-3 surgeries. Fine-tuning can take a year, depending on the patient’s aesthetic desires and personal schedule."

Hearts of love

After her mastectomy, Julie received 2 heart-shaped pillows from a friend. They fit perfectly under her sore and swollen armpits. Julie mentioned the pillows to Christie at one of her appointments.

"A bell went off in my head during that conversation," says Julie. "I've been sewing since middle school. I could help other women by making pillows and it would keep me busy during recovery."

Julie constructs each mastectomy cushion with soft fleece or flannel. She also attaches a handmade card with an inspirational message.

In just 5 months, Julie completed more than 150 Hearts of Love pillows. Steve helps deliver them to the plastic surgery clinic. Then, Christie shares them with breast reconstruction patients. It's a joyful team effort.

Positive attitude

To honor the nurse who made cancer treatment easier, Julie wrote a glowing letter about Christie and nominated her for a DAISY Award®. The Daisy Foundation recognizes nurses all over the world for providing extraordinary, compassionate and skillful care.

Christie says being nominated for the award is nice, but that's not what really matters. "Julie's letter itself meant the world to me," she says. "It feels good to be appreciated."

Julie encourages cancer patients to stay positive and find a hobby like sewing. One of her latest creations is a printed owl box with the message, "Get your hooters checked!" Maybe laughter really is the best medicine.

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