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Molly’s Story

Preventing Breast Cancer

A few weeks before returning to her sophomore year in college, Molly Essell learned her father had stage 4 cancer and had less than six months to live. Molly was worried about her father, while her father—a doctor himself—was worried about what his diagnosis might mean for his daughters. He met with a genetic counselor to find out more.

“When the genetic counselor mapped out our family tree, it showed a number of women with breast cancer,” Molly said. “I was 20 at the time, which is the age they typically begin this type of genetic testing. They don’t recommend testing for everyone, but because of my family history, they did for me. It was important to my dad that I get tested so he would know I was in a good place if he wasn’t there to help.”

Molly was walking between classes when the genetic counselor called with the news—Molly had inherited a gene mutation. Having the mutation meant that Molly had up to an 80 percent chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her lifetime. If she decided to have her breasts removed, it would lower her risk to less than 5 percent.

“I was shocked.” Molly said. “I talked with a genetic counselor about options, but at that point I was just gathering information—I didn’t need to make a decision right away. I was focused on supporting my dad as he fought cancer and finishing school, so my decision about whether or not to have surgery was put on hold.”

Just two weeks before Molly’s graduation, her father died, outliving his original diagnosis by three years. Because of his concern for Molly during his illness, he had given her an opportunity to protect her own health.

A Difficult Decision

After college, Molly returned home to Cincinnati and further researched her options. At age 24, she was ready to make her decision. She went to University of Cincinnati Cancer (UC) Center Institute where she met Elizabeth Shaughnessy, MD, PhD, a fellowship-trained surgical oncologist and professor of surgery, who led Molly’s care team at UC Health.

“I felt like it was life coming full circle,” Molly said. “My dad had gone to college and medical school at University of Cincinnati and my mom has worked at UC Health as a respiratory therapist for more than 30 years, so it felt right. I talked to my mom, stepmom and sister as I thought through my decision, but it can be very emotional and it’s hard to be objective. Dr. Shaughnessy was able to give me all the information I needed to make an informed decision. She educated me on the latest research, told me what I could expect with various options and offered her professional opinion. I knew that the more I knew going in, the easier it would be for me going forward.”

Dr. Shaughnessy and the care team evaluated Molly and found nothing that required immediate action, so Dr. Shaughnessy made sure Molly knew she had plenty of time to make a decision.

“I think deciding to have a mastectomy is extremely difficult for someone Molly’s age,” Dr. Shaughnessy said. “In some cases, people her age have already been diagnosed, so Molly must have felt like a ticking time bomb. It’s a particularly difficult decision from the standpoint of self-esteem and the standards of beauty in today’s society. Yet there we were, thinking about removing something that’s considered a visible part of a woman’s beauty—that took courage.”

Protecting Her Future

Molly decided to move forward with a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery. She was impressed by how well her care team put together a plan that met her specific needs.

“There was a specific time of the year that I needed to have surgery to work around my life at the time, and they planned for that,” Molly said. “It’s comforting to know that everyone is working together as a team to fulfill your individual care plan. And because UC Health is an educational institution, you know you’re getting the very best care. I felt like everyone put my needs first, whether it was scheduling appointments or always being available to answer my questions—and I asked a lot of questions. It really puts your mind at ease when you feel like you’re being treated as an individual.”

In partnership with UC Health, the UC Cancer Institute multidisciplinary breast cancer team offers patients the combined benefit of advanced, science-driven medicine with a personalized, compassionate approach to treatment and follow-up care. The Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center is the only center in the region awarded commendation from the American College of Radiology as a Center of Excellence and the American College of Surgeons as a NQMBC Certified Center of Excellence.

Molly had her initial surgery in April, and she was gratified at how smoothly it went. She spent one night in the hospital, and her fiancé, Kevin, stayed overnight with her.

“The night at the hospital was a good experience,” Molly said. “The night nurses were incredible and Kevin and I felt lucky to have such great people around us. The reconstructive surgery went just as well. I think having the right mindset going into surgery and being mentally and emotionally prepared for it helped in my recovery. Knowing that I could call Dr. Shaughnessy’s office at any time and having a team I could trust made all the difference.”

Molly’s initial surgery required the expertise of both a surgical oncologist and a plastic surgeon. During the surgery, a plastic surgeon worked alongside Dr. Shaughnessy to prepare the surgical area for the breast implant surgery that would follow. Once Molly had recovered from the initial surgery, a plastic surgeon performed reconstructive surgery to restore her breasts.

“We try to coordinate surgeries so it’s better for our patients,” Dr. Shaughnessy said. “When we’re able to perform dual-team surgeries, it minimizes time under anesthesia. In Molly’s surgery, as soon as I removed the breast on one side, the plastic surgeon was able to work on that side while I began on the other.”

Five months from her initial surgery, Molly is fully recovered and feeling 100 percent. She’s back at work, exercising again and feeling good about her decision. She and Kevin are getting married in May.

“As I think about getting married and starting a family in the future, I know I made the right decision,” Molly said. “After going through my dad’s being sick, I want to do everything in my power to be proactive in my health. It was a very personal decision that I’m proud of—it was the right decision for me. At UC Cancer Institute, I had a team that I trusted and that supported me every step of the way. With their support, I was able to make a positive difference in my life and do everything I can to stay healthy.”

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