She's an award-winning reporter and a familiar face to WSBT viewers. Now this former reporter wants you to know about a surgical alternative you may not be aware of. She says it is a message every woman should hear.
Denise Bohn Stewart covered some of WSBT’s biggest stories, including the Benton Harbor riots. But little did she know that when she left the business she'd work harder than she ever had before.
Stewart got married seven years ago, and had three beautiful children. But last year her world changed dramatically.
“Each one of my children have a 50 percent chance of having the same gene mutation that I have,” Stewart said. “And I don't want my daughter to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Stewart discovered she had breast cancer last September, three months after her son Kaden was born.
“I was just doing a self breast exam, which I had done ever since I was in my late teens, and I felt a lump,” she said.
Surgeons removed the tumor, thinking it was non-cancerous.
“Once I didn't hear right away from the doctor, my gut told me that he was going to give me some bad news,” Stewart said. “So I took all the kids with me to the doctor’s appointment to soften the blow, and I think it was harder on him than it was on me to tell me it was cancer.”
He recommended a double mastectomy. Breast cancer runs in her family. She tested positive for the BRACA1 gene; the genetic mutation that increases the risk of breast cancer. But she didn't want to lose her breasts.
“It was so hard to hear because I had nursed all my children and I was 37-years-old,” Stewart said. So I kind of put my reporter hat on.”
During four-and-a-half months of chemo, she started researching and found a surgery she'd never heard of: skin and nipple-sparing mastectomy.
“I went to my oncologist and printed everything out that I had done, and I said ‘They're doing this. Why didn't you tell me about this?’”
There was another problem. She couldn't find an experienced surgeon doing the procedure in our area. So she ended up going to university hospitals in Cleveland, where Dr. Julian Kim performed her surgery in August.
“We were one of the first to start the procedure,” said Kim. “With the traditional mastectomy, you remove a lot of skin and you remove the nipple. The concept of leaving some of the skin to give a better contour to the breast reconstruction ¿¿¿ that started 15 years ago.
Not everyone is a candidate. Kim says it works best with women with BRACA1 and BRACA2 who have not had cancer, and with women who have smaller breasts and tumors. And the tumors cannot be close to the nipple.
Recently, Stewart saw her oncologist, Dr. Rafat Ansari of Michiana Hematology and Oncology, since her surgery two months ago. It's was an interesting reunion, because when she mentioned the procedure to him, he was against it.
Ansari says even though recent studies show this procedure is just as effective as a standard mastectomy, there isn't the same research for women with BRACA1.
“You are on thin ice recommending to someone that you should go for nipple-sparing surgery when you are a little bit afraid that if they even leave a tiny bit of breast tissue, that tiny bit of breast tissue, is it the risk for future cancerous development?” said Ansari.
Stewart urged him to call Dr. Kim. He did, and he changed his mind.
“With our procedure, we're actually removing, very carefully, all that tissue behind the nipple, so that shouldn't be a concern,” said Kim.
Stewart has one more surgery in December, to replace the expanders in her chest with breast implants.
“They get hard as a rock, it hurts, it's uncomfortable, but it's worth it,” she said.
She also found a local doctor now doing the surgery ¿¿¿ Dr. Michael Rotkiss, who's done four of the surgeries in our area.
“We're always looking for appropriate candidates,” said Rotkiss.
“What I would like to see is more surgeons doing the procedure, so that women like Denise wouldn't have to fly to Cleveland to get it,” said Kim.
Stewart now lets everyone know she is a breast cancer survivor, and talks to groups of women around the area about this alternative.
“If I can make a difference from now, for the next 10 years, that's what I'm going to do, and if anybody else out there can help me find a cure so that they don't have to do this, that's really what I would like,” Stewart said.
Stewart faces another surgery next year. Because of the BRACA1 gene, she'll have her ovaries removed to decrease her chances of ovarian cancer; even though she wants to have another child.