By Lynne Gidish
Feature Image Credit to Andrea Slatter Photography
Three years ago, at the age of 21, Sasha-Lee Boaventura elected to remove both her breasts in order to save her life. She explains why:
My mom and gran both had breast cancer, so I always knew I had to be vigilant about my health. At the age of 13, I had cysts removed from my ovaries after battling with terrible tummy pain and no sign of my period. (This did finally arrive after my surgery.)
I was 18 when I found my first lump in my left breast. At the back of my mind, I’d been expecting it, as I was fully aware of my high-risk profile, so there was very little panic, despite the circumstances. I went straight to my mom’s surgeon and was sent for an ultrasound, which confirmed the lump was benign. The surgeon suggested keeping a watchful eye on it instead of rushing into surgery that would potentially scar me at such a young age.
For the next couple of years, whenever my mom went for her check-ups, I went along. I had regular sonars and everything was absolutely fine until just before my 21st, when the sonar picked up 10 more lumps. I had no doubt that this was a huge step closer to my being diagnosed with breast cancer, and realised something needed to be done. I refused to have the core needle biopsy that would give the definitive diagnosis, as I’d watched my mom go through the process, and needles scared the living daylights out of me. And anyway, what was the point, when it was all so obvious to me?
I elected there and then to have a double mastectomy, which was quite something at the age of 21. It was before Angelina Jolie went public and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I’d watched my mom go through two bouts of breast cancer, as well as ovarian cancer, and didn’t want my family to go through this trauma with me. I also didn’t want to have a lumpectomy and then have this hanging over me for the rest of my life – I wanted it all to be a thing of the past. This wasn’t an easy decision. I wanted to get married and have babies that I could breastfeed one day. But I knew this was the way to go.
My surgeon referred me to a psychologist to ensure that I was mentally prepared. This was to make sure that I’d be able to cope with such radical surgery and that I completely understood what was involved. My boyfriend accompanied me, so that he would also know exactly what we’d be dealing with. Right from the start, he was fully supportive and accepted what I needed to do.
Once the decision was made and the surgery was booked, I felt relieved. It was good to know that I was taking care of myself. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was making the right decision, and this was reinforced when the results confirmed post-surgery that I was carrying the BRCA1 and 2 gene mutation, which meant a 99% chance of getting breast cancer. Having had all my breast tissue removed, followed by immediate reconstruction, I opted not to have chemo or radiation.
I’ve never once regretted my decision. I certainly don’t feel less of a woman having chosen to remove my breasts – to the contrary, I feel far more confident, powerful and in control. I love my body and my new breasts – to me, they symbolise life. They’re constant reminders of having gone through something that not many young women would want to do, and of refusing to be a victim – ever.
You never know what life throws at you, and sometimes you have to make tough decisions that can be life-changing. Mine has certainly changed for the better, as I no longer have the breast-cancer spectre hovering over me.
I’ve always shared my story, and even more so since Angelina Jolie broke the silence, as it’s something that needs to be told. I don’t want people’s sympathy – there’s nothing to be sorry about. My breasts have never defined me and I don’t want people looking at me in a different way. I love showing them off in celebration of my femininity, so I’m a part-time photographic model, doing everything from lingerie to glamour to artistic mood. Every time I step into the spotlight is an affirmation of what I’ve done: this is who I am; this is what I’ve been through; look at me – I’m strong!
I continue to monitor my health and go for regular check-ups with my gynae. Like me, my mom is a survivor, happy, healthy and doing well. We work side by side in the two companies we jointly own – one a recruitment agency, the other in commodity broking – and neither of us will ever give up. Instead we wake each morning determined to live our lives to the full, filled with gratitude for yet another day.
Removing Your Breasts: The Expert View
According to Prof Carol Ann Benn, a breast-cancer expert and surgeon, a small percentage of women with high-risk lesions in their breasts or a strong family history of breast cancer, or a confirmed genetic mutation, do decide to undergo risk-reducing surgery.
“They have had many triggers around breast cancer, and the albatross of the ‘what if’, such as a mammogram call-back, a core needle biopsy, someone close developing a metastatic cancer or dying, is usually the driver around deciding to undergo risk-reducing surgery. These women, who include Angelina Jolie – a BRCA 1 gene mutation carrier, which gave her an 87%\ risk of breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer (and having lost mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer) – must be extremely well-counseled about the pros and cons.
“The pros,” she continues, “are decreasing your risk of developing breast cancer by more than 95%, depending on the type of surgery offered, and not having to go for mammograms.
It also removes the constant stress of ‘when will it happen to me?’ However, you will still require ‘chest wall’ ultrasounds, as 100% of the breast tissue can never be removed.
“The cons that you’ll have to come to terms with,” she adds, “aside from the fact that all surgery has risks, are that you will not be able to breastfeed and you’ll be left with ‘Barbie boobs’ for the rest of your life. Electing to undergo surgery is a difficult choice, a choice that should not be rushed, as it’s not an emergency, nor judged, nor influenced by doctors, families or friends. It’s YOUR body and YOUR life, so it should be YOUR decision only.”