MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - It's a drastic decision that more and more women are making: having their breasts removed even though they're not fighting cancer. Jessica Blazer is one of them.
She works at WMBF News in the programming department, but she's also a wife, mother and recovering from major surgery. Just three months ago, she had a double mastectomy. Her journey to the operating room started years ago.
"Ten years after my mother's death, I was 28 and that's when my doctor found a lump," Jessica remembers. "It's hard to imagine being 28, thinking that you have your whole life ahead of you, and you may not."
The diagnosis stunned her. Even though her mother died of breast cancer, Jessica says there was never a clear family history of the disease.
"It just kept snowballing out of control and she lost her battle two and a half years later," Jessica says about her mother's cancer.
"After I was diagnosed, my first thought was, 'I'm going to die just like my mom.' They kept telling me 'This isn't your mother's cancer', but I kept thinking that," she says.
Jessica had a lumpectomy, then six months of chemotherapy because the disease had already spread to her lymph nodes. She lost all of her long hair. It was one of the most traumatizing parts of the process.
"My cancer when it was tested, came back triple negative," Jessica says. "Usually you think anything with cancer and negative is a good thing! But triple negative is actually the worst, aggressive, breast cancer you can get."
It was an aggressive treatment for an aggressive disease.
Her husband, Marc, remembers how frightened they both were during Jessica's diagnosis and treatment.
"It was a scary thing all the way through," Marc recalls. "Still to this day, I'm amazed we survived it."
Since her mother died of the disease at a young age, Jessica's oncologist suggested she have gene testing done to see if she was at a higher risk.
"It came back positive for BRCA 1, and she said 'Well that explains a lot,'" Jessica remembers her doctor saying. The oncologist told Jessica to consider a double mastectomy in the future because she had a hereditary risk for breast cancer. In some BRCA 1 patients, that risk could be as high as 80 percent.
During her annual exams, Jessica worried the cancer would come back. In June, a suspicious test result sent that fear into overdrive.
"I was like 'This can't be happening again,'" she thought. "For the better part of the day I was upset, then I got angry." Jessica says it was then she made a life-changing decision.
"I just decided 'you know what?' I don't want to do this anymore," she remembers. "I don't want to keep waiting for it to come back."
Jessica met with a surgeon in Charleston who was performing a procedure unlike any she had researched before. Doctor Robert Allen, a Florence native, pioneered the "Microsurgical Breast Reconstruction" surgery. Jessica had considered the procedure for years, but this summer, when she got the cancer scare, she moved forward.
"If it had still just been Marc & myself, I may not have done it so quickly," Jessica says. "Now that I have a daughter, I have to be here for her. It wasn't a question."
Unlike a mastectomy with implants, which takes several surgeries, Dr. Allen's procedure involves moving fat tissue from the stomach to the breasts as soon as the mastectomy is finished.
"Cancer of the fat in the lower abdomen happens in maybe one in ten million people, whereas cancer of the breast may happen in one in seven or eight," Dr. Allen explains. "So the tissue you're replacing the breast with is essentially a zero risk for breast cancer."
On July 16, on her 36th birthday, Jessica underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center during a six-and-a-half-hour procedure.
"I did start to get a little nervous outside the operating room, right before they took me in," she remembers. "All of a sudden I'm by myself in this hallway outside the OR, and I just started to feel a little overwhelmed."
Ninety-eight percent of the patients Dr. Allen sees are breast cancer survivors. Many of them have the BRCA gene mutation. He says the DiepFlap surgery that Jessica had is easy to recover from because it doesn't affect any muscle or bone, there's barely any blood loss, and it leaves women with natural-looking and feeling breasts.
"I was put under and I had breasts, and I woke up, and I had breasts," Jessica says. "There was no lag time in between, and I think that, psychologically, was better for me. I felt fine, I didn't feel pain, I didn't feel like I was missing anything."
Marc says the family has a whole new outlook on life.
"We don't think of breast cancer anymore because her chances are less than two percent," he says. "That's better than most women walking around. No more mammograms, no more cancer. Move on. Let's live."
Now nearly three months post-surgery, Jessica is back to feeling like normal and planning for a future.
"It all comes down to wanting to be here for my family and for my daughter," she says. "It's amazing the sense of relief afterwards and the fact that I don't have to worry about it anymore."
Even though gene testing has been around for years, it was thrust into the spotlight last spring when actress Angelina Jolie wrote in The New York Times of her own journey finding out she had the BRCA 1 gene mutation and her choice to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.