On Saturday, Oct. 20, a group of breast cancer survivors were transformed into fashion models at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s second annual Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Symposium.
After getting glammed up by a team of makeup artists, breast reconstruction patient Sarah Cordova and 17 other women modeled stunning gowns and outfits provided by Dillard’s, walking the runway in front of friends and family to celebrate the conclusion of their breast cancer journeys.
“I’m seriously honored and proud of the other women because I know how hard it is, not just to overcome or be in remission or beat breast cancer at whatever stage they’re at, but to get up [on stage] and walk in front of people after you feel like your body has been ravaged and rebuilt,” Cordova said. “You’re a new person, but you’ve been through a lot.”
Cordova, who sported a pink fur coat over a burgundy floral dress, said she participated in the runway show to help encourage women to be more aware of their bodies and breast cancer risks.
“I wanted to show that [breast cancer patients] come from all walks of life. I’m a young, 36-year-old mom of three, and I know people who have gone through breast cancer who are in their later years. It’s the same experience—just a different age. It could happen to anybody,” Cordova said. “I wanted to show that no matter what age you’re at, you need to be aware of your breasts and you need to be aware of what’s going on with them.”
In 2017, Cordova discovered that she had a mutation in her breast cancer susceptibility gene (BRCA).
While approximately 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives, the number dramatically increases for women with the BRCA gene mutation. According to the American Cancer Society, 72 percent of women with the BRCA1 gene mutation and 69 percent of women with the BRCA2 gene mutation will develop breast cancer by the age of 80. Women with a BRCA gene mutation are seven times more likely to get breast cancer without treatment, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cordova didn’t want to wait and risk being diagnosed with breast cancer later in life, so she took an aggressive approach to her treatment. On Sept. 7, 2017, she underwent a 13-hour prophylactic mastectomy and breast reconstruction at MD Anderson using tissue from her inner upper thighs and abdomen.
Although she had initially considered going flat, she wanted to make sure she felt good about her body after the surgery.
“We want to feel feminine. We want to feel like what we were before we made the choice to have the surgery. That’s asking a lot, but in this day and age, we have the resources and [technology] to do that,” Cordova said. “It was surprising to me because I thought [the reconstruction] was very cookie cutter, but it’s not. It’s a lot more about the patient and about what you’re comfortable with.”
As friends and family members cheered on their loved ones walking the runway, caregivers also had a chance to feel proud of the patients they helped and the services they provided.
“I think it’s just amazing to watch patients go through that transformation. We have the ability to see them from the beginning of their treatment through to the end,” said Rene York, a physician assistant in the department of plastic surgery at MD Anderson, who founded the symposium in 2017. “It’s amazing how breast reconstruction can help them have a sense of renewal. It makes long hours in clinic and long hours in the OR worth it when we see how beneficial it can be to the women we provide care for.”
The fashion runway show was part of a free community outreach and education event dedicated to promoting awareness of the various breast reconstruction surgery options available to women. The event focused on educating patients about all the options for breast reconstruction and providing them with the opportunity to connect with the MD Anderson plastic surgery team. Plastic surgeons made educational presentations about a wide range of topics around breast reconstruction—including types of mastectomies, local and oncoplastic breast reconstruction, tissue expander and implant-based breast reconstruction, free tissue transfer in breast reconstruction and post-mastectomy lymphedema treatment.
“Every woman is unique,” York said. “The role and the degree to which their breasts influence their body image varies. It’s so important for women to be empowered to speak to a plastic surgeon about their reconstruction options and determine if breast reconstruction is right for them. I think it’s encouraging for the patients in the audience to see that life can continue after breast cancer.”
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