As a young woman, LaDonna Herber was no stranger to checkups and biopsies. Throughout her 20s, Herber found multiple lumps in her breasts and had several biopsies. Fortunately, the results came back benign each time. Until they didn’t.
“I was 32, I found another lump,” Herber recalled. “I almost didn’t go to have it checked because the others had been benign. I’m thinking it’s probably benign and I don’t really want to go through that again. And then I talked myself into it.”
Herber went to her doctor, got the lump biopsied, and waited for the results. The news took her by surprise.
“I remember the day really well, because usually if everything’s okay, you get a phone call. If it’s not, they want you to come in,” Herber explained. “I got the 'come in' call.”
The doctor explained to Herber that she had breast cancer and recommended a mastectomy.
“It was surreal,” Herber said. “You think, how can that be? I’m fine, I’m healthy, I’m in good shape. How can this be that way? I remember walking to the car thinking, ‘Well this is nuts. I’m not supposed to have these kinds of things. I’m a healthy person.’”
Herber’s doctor explained that while he could do the mastectomy, he was not a plastic surgeon and could not do anything for her afterwards. Herber decided to see a plastic surgeon to perform the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
“He (the surgeon) told me, the side where I had had the biopsy, he said ‘We’re definitely going to take that side’,” Herber said. “He said, ‘I’m going to look at the other and if there’s anything there, I’d really like to take it too.’”
Herber agreed that the surgeon should remove anything that he needed to. More cancer was found in both breasts during the surgery. Due to their position, the cancer would have never shown up on a mammogram.
“They were along my ribs and far enough down that they did not pick them up,” Herber said. “So had I waited, put it off like I initially thought, I probably wouldn’t have had as good an outcome.”
She woke from surgery to find both of her breasts had been removed, however, Herber had already decided she would have reconstruction.
Reconstructive surgery following a mastectomy can be a difficult decision. For Herber, there was no question.
“I wanted to still feel good about me,” Herber explained. “I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and be okay with what I looked like. And not feel like I had to hide anything or not feel like I was still pretty.”
Herber acknowledges that her choice is not going to be the same choice that all women in similar situations make. And that’s okay.
“I know different women have different ideals and needs and things that are super important to them when they go through something like this,” Herber said. “And that’s okay. If they’re good with that, that’s fine. I wasn’t. I wanted to be whole again.”
Herber jumped in feet first and began the recovery process before starting the reconstruction.
“Had anybody given me the full details - there’s a reason why they don’t give you all the details prior to because you would probably change your mind,” Herber said. “It’s pretty grueling.”
Herber explained that recovering from the mastectomy was painful and difficult, but as a mother of two young children, she pushed through.
A couple of months following her surgery, Herber had recovered enough to begin reconstruction.
“We put the tissue expanders in, they gradually inflate them,” Herber explained. “And then once that’s done, you go back and have those expanders taken out and your prosthetics put in. And that part was hard.”
Herber had more than a few descriptive words when talking about the long and drawn out process.
“It was god-awful, it was horrible, it was painful,” Herber said. “You felt less than human for a while.”
Despite the excruciating pain, the survivor says she would do it all again if she had to.
“When it was all said and done, it was worth it,” Herber said.
Once the reconstructive surgery was complete and she had healed, Herber got on with her life. About 25 years later, she began to have some rib and back pain.
“I thought I had done something to my back, bruised a rib or done something,” the Cowgirl said. “I went to an orthopedic and had an MRI done.”
Herber said either she wasn’t told or she had forgotten that her prosthetics had a shelf life of 15 years. Well beyond their shelf life, they had begun to disintegrate.
“All of the solution, not silicone but the gel, started migrating everywhere,” Herber explained. “That’s the pain I was feeling. It was all along my rib cage, it was down in my upper arms. Had the biggest mess you ever saw.”
Herber went in for another surgery to remove all of the gel.
“That was pretty bad,” Herber said. “I think it was worse than the first surgery, because basically they have to go in everywhere. I’m stitched from here (underarm) down to my elbows on both arms.”
Her chest was essentially peeled back to remove the gel that had leaked into her body. It was another recover process but Herber knew without a doubt that she wanted her prosthetics replaced.
“They rebuilt me again and the prosthetics that I have now, they are a memory gel but they are not a liquid,” Herber explained. “They are a solid. He showed me what they looked like prior to surgery. If you cut them in two, you just have two pieces. You don’t have anything that’s going to leak out.”
Despite the incredibly long and painful journey, Herber said she has no regrets about the choices she made.
“When you get on the other side of it all, it’s like childbirth,” Herber said. “You kind of forget about all the horrible parts and you think, ‘yeah I’d do it again.’ Would I do it again? Yes. No matter what my age, I would do it again. If today, they told me, at my age, if they told me I needed to have them replaced, I would. Not for anyone else, but for me.”