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Breast cancer survivors find comfort in surgery

When you think of plastic surgeons, images of wealthy Beverly Hills yuppies receiving high-dollar facelifts and tummy tucks spring to mind.

However, the role of the plastic surgeon has become increasingly important in the realm of breast cancer treatment, notably here in the Rogue Valley.

Plastic surgeon Dr. Brian Kreul, whose office sits on Hillcrest Park Drive in Medford, believes that having breast reconstructive surgery integrated into the process of treating cancer is an important step in the healing process.

"I believe that if you can restore a woman's sense of wholeness early in the process, it will help give them a psychological lift," Kreul said.

It is not uncommon for a plastic surgeon to be in the operating room as doctors perform a mastectomy.

Kreul said he advises the surgeons on how best to remove the breasts to leave him in the best position to reconstruct the chest.

"I have drawn where the incisions should occur and advised how much tissue can be left behind," Kreul said.

In the past, the reconstruction aspects of breast cancer were put off for weeks, months or sometimes years.

In a sense, restoring a woman's chest was nearly an afterthought, Kreul said.

"What we focus on now is getting the patient back to wholeness sooner rather than later," Kreul said.

Kay Kolp of Jacksonville lost her breast to cancer and later received reconstructive surgery from Kreul.

She appreciated having the plastic surgery process started at the same time as her mastectomy. "It was helpful, because it made me feel like I wasn't completely flat-chested after the surgery," Kolp said.

For many women, the option of having breast reconstruction didn't become plausible until 1998, when Congress passed the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act. Before this, insurance companies did not have to cover the costs of reconstruction.

Rebekah Ruby, who was featured in a breast cancer story earlier this month in the Mail Tribune, said her insurance paid for most of her breast reconstruction surgery. Ruby, 24, had a mastectomy to treat her cancer.

She's not sure what she would have done without this coverage.

"One of my surgeries was $54,000 alone," she said. "It was covered by insurance. I don't even know how much the reconstruction would cost, but I'm sure I couldn't have afforded it."

Like Kolp, Ruby said having the reconstruction process start early in her treatments was a boost to her spirits.

"I just couldn't imagine it taking years for me to have a chest again," she said.

Kreul said many women don't realize they have the option of reconstruction offered to them when they are forced to undergo a life-saving mastectomy.

"They need to know this is something they can have done," he said. "It is better to have it done immediately when possible, and not in a delayed fashion."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Rebekah Ruby underwent a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore