A Survivor's Right to Reconstruction

When I think of October, I don't just think of cooler weather and pumpkin-flavored treats. I also think about the well-known pink breast cancer ribbon, because each year during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, organizations from all across the country run promotions and campaigns featuring the pink ribbon to help raise awareness about breast cancer. For many of us, it's a cancer we all know too well. We know a family member, friend, neighbor, or coworker who has been touched by breast cancer. And it doesn't discriminate. According to CDC, other than some kinds of skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women of all races and ethnicities. However, there is one aspect of breast cancer that hasn't received nearly enough attention: a survivor's right to reconstruction.

Three women smilingDid you know that there's a federal law that requires most health insurance plans to cover breast reconstruction and prostheses after mastectomy? And that it's been around since 1998? Here's the scoop — the law, which is called the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act, requires health plans that cover mastectomy (when you have part or all of your breast tissue removed) to also cover breast reconstruction if the woman chooses it. Coverage also includes reconstruction to the other breast for a more balanced look, breast prostheses (or breast forms that fit into your bra), and treatment of physical complications of the mastectomy, including lymphedema. The law also gives women the right to choose to transfer to a different doctor, such as a surgeon, for the reconstruction surgery, within network if mandated by their insurance plan. The problem is that many breast cancer patients who are eligible for breast reconstruction after mastectomy aren't aware of their rights and care options.

That's why OWH is working with offices across the U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services to raise awareness about breast cancer reconstruction rights for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Together, we want to help more women understand all of their care options. Of course, not all women will choose to have their breast(s) rebuilt after mastectomy. But it's a personal decision we think all women have the right to make for themselves.

For my good friend Lynn Winn, it was exactly that — a personal decision that improved her quality of life.

Lynn Winn

Lynn Winn

Lynn is 51 years old. She first found out she had breast cancer four years ago. Her doctors recommended a lumpectomy to remove the tumor in her right breast. After her surgery, Lynn went for a mammogram every six months and after two years, Lynn and her doctors decided a double mastectomy was the right course of treatment.

When it came to reconstruction, Lynn said, "For me, it was the right thing to do." She explains that it felt like the next step in the process, because having her breasts reconstructed meant that she'd look like she did before breast cancer. If you didn't know her (and even if you do!), you'd never know she had the surgery. It brought a sense of normalcy back to her life after it had been turned upside down.

"[Breast reconstruction] made me feel whole again," says Lynn.

For women who choose reconstruction, it can make it a little easier to move on after cancer and improve their quality of life. This is why we want women to know that they have the right to breast cancer reconstruction after mastectomy, and I hope you will join me in sharing this information far and wide. Reconstruction will not be the right choice for every woman, but women should know that most insurance plans cover reconstruction. Encourage the women in your life who have been touched by breast cancer to learn more about breast reconstruction and to talk to their health care provider about what's right for them. Together, we can all help women who are eligible for reconstruction understand all of their care options.