From Doctor to Patient: My Story of Breast Cancer, Treatment and Reconstruction

Dr. Michelle PalazzoBy Dr. Michelle Palazzo

A week before starting my chief year of residency in plastic surgery, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and became the patient that I was in training to treat.

My education had prepared me for the physical effects of a mastectomy, but it was the emotional effects of losing a breast that surprised me the most. Now, many years later after my own reconstruction journey, I reflect on how the fateful letters “DCIS” changed my life and helped me become a more compassionate surgeon. Now I am honored to help guide women on their own journey of breast reconstruction.

In 2003, I was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) also known as stage 0 breast cancer. Even though as a physician I knew the treatment options, when faced with the prospect of being on the other side of the knife, I had to hear them from someone else. I was given two choices: lumpectomy and radiation or mastectomy. I chose to have a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction with a tissue expander, followed a few months later with an implant and a nipple reconstruction.

Living in St. Louis at that time, I was called by a local YSC member, Patty, who had also been through a mastectomy for DCIS. Almost immediately, we became close friends. I spent a lot of time learning from her experience and finding comfort in being with someone who understood what I was going through. We went to local support meetings and eventually to a YSC national conference.

Prior to my diagnosis, I led a stressful life, with little time for myself. I was busy working 80-plus hours a week in a male-dominated field wearing nothing but scrubs. I had lost touch with my femininity; ironically - I found it again after losing a part of it.

As time marched on, I decided to pursue additional training in breast reconstruction with one of the most well-respected breast plastic surgeons in the nation, Dr. Scott Spear of Georgetown University in Washington D.C. After completing my residency at Saint Louis university, I moved to Washington D.C. to learn from the best!

While at Georgetown, I learned so much more about the minutia of making a breast beautiful. In addition to reconstruction, I gained experience in improving symmetry by operating on the other breast to make it larger (augmentation), smaller (reduction), or perkier (lift). In addition, many women would choose to do something fun for themselves during their final stage of reconstruction, such as a liposuction, eye lift, or tummy tuck, so I gained experience in cosmetic surgery as well.

The breast fellowship was technically challenging, and I grew a lot as a surgeon that year. But I also grew as a physician, employing compassion and empathy to those women who were about to embark on a similar path to the one I had recently taken. While I am only one person and only know what I went through as a patient, the women with whom I had started my journey took comfort in knowing that I understood their situation.

My friendship with Patty led me to meet the man who eventually became my husband and to this city that I now call home. In 2005, I moved to Louisville for additional training in hand and microsurgery with Kleinert and Kutz where I remain a partner today. I am honored to be a part of this internationally respected group of surgeons in hand, orthopedic and plastic surgery for 15 years.

I love my job and the people in my life, and I am thankful to have so many great patients to care for. Each day now when I see that scar on my left breast, instead of being sad at what I lost, I smile at what joy I have gained because of breast cancer. While I enjoy the intricacies and challenges of hand and cosmetic surgery, it is breast surgery that is over (and in) my heart.

For more information about Kleinert Kutz Plastics and Aesthetic services or to make an appointment call (502) 561-4283.


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