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Women Warn Of Reconstructive Post-Breast Cancer Surgery

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Breast cancer is a devastating diagnosis that comes with a long list of big decisions. Some women often opt for reconstruction surgery. But some blame one popular procedure for making matters even worse.

A TRAM Flap procedure is similar to a tummy tuck, transferring tissue from the abdomen to the chest to make a breast.

While most cases turn out fine, two Twin Cities women want to warn others of some side effects that could last a lifetime.

To say it's consumed their lives doesn't come close. Bonnie Roy and Taylor Piehl both had TRAM Flaps. They were both young mothers when they were blindsided by finding lumps in their breasts.

Bonnie Roy said the surgery cost her everything.

"I would say it pretty much took my life away," Roy said.

Now, she juggles at least three places for therapy and is in constant pain. She wasn't aware of what could happen.

"I just thought it was a simple procedure that I'd be willing to do ... versus extensive surgeries after that," Roy said.

Taylor Piehl also thought she would be OK after a few weeks.

"It's one surgery. One time, you're done; three weeks, you're back to work; a month, you're back to your life," Piehl said.

That didn't happen for either of these women. Roy's incision kept tearing. She had to spend time in a wheelchair. Since the procedure removes a large part of the stomach muscle, Roy
struggled to sit and stand. Persistent pain and lack of stomach control eventually caused her to lose her job.

Piehl blames similar side effects for ending her marriage and putting her on disability.

Dr. David Ruebeck, of Abbott Northwestern Hospital's Piper Breast Center, did not perform Roy or Piehl's surgeries, but he has done more than 500 TRAM flaps in his 14 years in practice. He said the reconstruction sounds good on paper.

"It sounds fantastic when you read about. I'd like to have the breast reconstructed with my own tissue, get rid of my tummy, flatten out the tummy," Ruebeck said. "It sounds really good but there are some tradeoffs and some risks women have to be aware of."

Ruebeck said it usually takes about a month to recover from TRAM surgery. He said implants are more common now. He also said there is no perfect solution for breast reconstruction, and that it's best to have a referral from your primary doctor to a plastic surgeon.

Ruebeck explained that extreme side effects are rare but can happen.

"The worst case scenario would be a situation where weakness or pain or bulging becomes a daily problem. A disability keeps a person from working or exercising the way they like of effecting posture or other comfort," Dr. Ruebeck said. "That's quite unusual. There's not much that can be done about it."

In the years that have passed, both Roy and Piehl have both done their best to manage, but every day is a challenge.

"Even by us two meeting, you feel like you can come together with someone who understands," Roy said.

They met by chance and have decided not to blame any doctor. Instead, they want women to know what could happen since they're reminded every move they make.

"I would tell other women not to do it. It's not worth taking a chance and flipping a coin," Piehl said.

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