As a businesswoman and community leader in Oro Valley and the Northwest region, Melanie Larson beams with confidence and pride.
But, Larson dropped her guard in a recent interview when she spoke about the physical and emotional impact breast cancer had on her not once, but twice.
In 2007, Larson underwent a bilateral mastectomy at age 53. This was the final step after she was originally diagnosed at age 32.
It was 1986, and Larson who already had a 4-year old, had just had a baby. The idea that she would have breast cancer at such a young age was absurd not only to her, but also to her doctor.
However, after the biopsy affirmed the diagnosis, Larson had to turn to her sister to help with her young children. She went through a lumpectomy followed by eight chemotherapy treatments and 25 rounds of radiation.
Clear of cancer, Larson resumed her regular life, running a local newspaper, volunteering in the community and raising her children.
She also followed a doctor’s advice, and kept getting her annual exams.
Larson recalled going through some of those checkups with a high level of anxiety, remembering her excitement when she was cancer-free after five years, and the feeling of relief after 10 years.
After 10 years of clear exams, Larson said she truly felt like she had “beat” the disease. She would be able to feel that way for another 10 years, but on the 21st year, the mammogram discovered something.
In 2007, a mammogram revealed three small tumors that were later confirmed as breast cancer. The tumors were so small against her chest wall they could not be detected by touch.
Larson said the second diagnosis was thanks to the advancement of technology over the last 21 years.
“Technology is just so advanced because those lumps were just so microscopic,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to find them for years, and that would have been the end of me for sure because it would have been so massive.”
With the second diagnosis, Larson said tests found cancer in both breasts, and the only option was to have them removed.
“You have to make all these decisions. You make all these decisions in the end based on what your gut tells you,” she said. “That’s what it boils down to. They are telling you all these things, giving you these piles of papers and information that you aren’t going to read. Your head is just swimming. You can’t possibly be hearing or retaining any of it because you are scared. You are afraid of what is going to happen.”
While she has never second-guessed having a bilateral mastectomy, Larson said in 2007 she truly learned how commercialized a woman losing her breasts had become.
Days after the surgery, Larson received calls at home from companies offering prosthetic breasts for $1,100.
Other unsolicited discussions centered on how she could pay for surgery that would take tissue from her stomach to reconstruct her breasts.
“These companies were just so interested in the money. I got to a point where I said I was never big-breasted anyway, so I’m just not going to do any of it,” she said.
Not wanting to go through another surgery, Larson said she thought if she changed her mind in a year or two, she could eventually do reconstruction.
In the end, due to her insurance coverage and other factors, the surgery was never performed.
Now, four years later, Larson is confident and successful, but at the end of the day, she admits she sees the scars.
She said she isn’t even sure how reconstruction would have worked given how badly scarred and damaged her left breast is. The left breast was burned during surgery, and Larson said she is unsure how the maimed and damaged tissue would even hold up.
When asked about the emotional toll, Larson quietly describes how shopping changed for her after the procedure. Once willing to wear low-cut blouses and top-of-the-line fashions, she had to make adjustments. Larson said every blouse she now purchases must come up to the neckline.
Larson also described some struggles in adjusting to her changed body.
“You have balancing problems in the beginning,” she said. “It takes your body a long time to get in balance. I don’t know if I felt self-conscience because that’s how I am. I am easy in my own body.”
Even so, Larson said she doubts if she will ever be comfortable around a man.
“I really don’t know if I would feel comfortable to be with anybody again,” she said. “In the end, I know I have lived a pretty rich life. It’s not the end of the world to me. But, it’s kind of sad for me to think that way I guess.”
After going through the ordeal twice, Larson advises other women who may have been diagnosed with breast cancer to remember that battling this disease is “80 percent attitude.”
Larson said she learned that leading a stressful life impacts your health negatively all the time. She also recommends that women and men lead healthy lives through exercise and eating habits.
In the end, Larson was about sending the message. She stressed that women should realize that breast cancer can strike anyone at any age.
“It’s really important, especially if you have a family history, to check yourself a lot,” she said. “Doing it daily or weekly means you are going to feel those changes.”
Having found a lump not only through a self-exam but also through technology, Larson said the annual exams with a doctor are just as important as self-checks.