Feature

‘Flat denial’ can leave breast cancer patients with lasting scars


 

Six years ago, Kim Bowles had a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Instead of opting for reconstruction, she decided to go “flat.” At 35, she had already breast fed both of her children, and didn’t want breasts anymore.

She asked her surgeon for an aesthetic flat closure, showing him photos of a smooth chest with no excess skin flaps. Although he agreed to her request in the office, he reneged in the operating room.

As the anesthesia took effect he said, “I’ll just leave a little extra skin, in case you change your mind.”

The last thing she remembers is telling him “no.”

When Ms. Bowles woke up, she saw excess tissue instead of the smooth chest she had requested. When she was eventually well enough, she staged a topless sit-in at the hospital and marched outside with a placard, baring her breastless, disfigured chest.

“Do I need a B-cup side-boob?” she asked, pulling at her lateral excess tissue, often referred to as dog ears. “You would never think that a surgeon would leave somebody looking like that,” she said in an interview.

Based on her experience, Ms. Bowles coined the term “flat denial” to describe what her surgeon did.

The weight of flat denial

In a recent study, Deanna Attai, MD, a breast surgeon at University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that more than one in five women who want a flat closure experience flat denial.

But well before that survey, Dr. Attai first came across flat denial more than a decade ago when a patient came to her for a second opinion after another surgeon insisted the patient see a psychiatrist when she requested a flat closure. Dr. Attai performed the flat closure for her instead.

But Dr. Attai said flat denial can take many forms. Some experiences may closely match the paternalistic encounter Ms. Bowles had, where a surgeon disregards a patient’s request. Other surgeons may simply be ignorant that a flat closure can be achieved aesthetically or that patients would even want this option.

This resistance aligns with Hester Schnipper’s experience as an oncology social worker. In her 45-year career, she has often found herself pushing back against breast surgeons who present reconstruction as if it were the only option for patients after mastectomy.

“And because most women are so overwhelmed, so scared, so stressed, they tend to go with whatever the doctor suggests,” said Ms. Schnipper.

Whatever form flat denial takes, the outcome can be damaging to the patient.

“This isn’t just ‘my scar’s a little thick.’ This is much more,” Dr. Attai said. “How do you even put a prosthesis on that? And if you’re not going to do a prosthesis in a bra, how do you even wear a shirt with all of that? It becomes a cleaning issue and depending on how things scar down you can get irregular fibrosis.”

What’s more, the harms of flat denial can extend beyond the physical scars.

Like Ms. Bowles, Anne Marie Champagne had made her desire for a flat closure clear to her surgeon before undergoing a mastectomy in 2009. The surgeon also reneged in the operating room while Champagne was unconscious and unable to object.

Ms. Champagne told The Washington Post that her surgeon’s justification for his actions left her feeling “profound grief, a combination of heartache and anger.

“I couldn’t believe that my surgeon would make a decision for me while I was under anesthesia that went against everything we had discussed – what I had consented to.”

Although it’s not clear how often women experience flat denial, discussions surrounding the issue have increased in recent years.

Ms. Bowles started a patient advocacy organization called “Not Putting on A Shirt” to help other women. And Dr. Attai moderates a Twitter group, called #BCSM or Breast Cancer Social Media, where patients share their experiences of breast cancer treatment, including in some cases flat denial.

“In getting to know so many women in the online space, an early observation was that the conversations online were different than what we had in the office,” Dr. Attai said. Online, “women were less guarded and more open about sharing the entirety of their breast cancer experience, including the more painful and raw moments.”

Being immersed in these moments, it also became clear to Dr. Attai that members of the treatment team don’t always recognize what is most important to a patient. “We might not ask, we might not allow them the time to express their preferences, or we might not really hear them,” she said.

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