Laughing, dancing to tropical music and wearing beachy party favors, a woman having an invasive procedure enters her breast reconstruction surgeon’s waiting room with eight of her friends. After the procedure, they celebrate together in the exam room with coconut treats and cupcakes decorated as healthy breasts or breasts with mastectomy scars. Then, they wash everything down with cups of Hawaiian Punch.
Making light of cancer: Socially unacceptable or useful coping mechanism?
Angela Phillips, 53, of Bloomfield Hills, recently used her experience with breast cancer treatment at Beaumont to help her family, friends and surgeons see the benefits of infusing treatment with humor.
“Cancer doctors have a really hard job. So why not lessen their load?” Phillips explained. “I think it helped them all to remember me in a good way, and I kept myself from feeling frightened.”
By changing the perspective about being diagnosed with right-side ductal carcinoma in situ, she declawed cancer and injected a healthy dose of laughter into every interaction with her Beaumont breast cancer team.
“Angela is a witty woman. Her humor about the life challenge of a breast cancer diagnosis is a unique way of coping that allowed her to manage her stress and enjoy better overall health during treatment,” said Beaumont breast surgeon Dr. Sayee Kiran. “It led her to quickly bond with us and positively framed her treatment experience.”
Phillips, who is originally from Wales, relocated to Michigan 15 years ago with her husband and kids. In the U.S., she befriended Gaynor Townsend, a Brit who became her new bestie. When Phillips was diagnosed in the summer of 2019, Townsend stepped up to help her friend. Together, they devised clever gifts to give to Phillips’ cancer doctors at almost every appointment. In addition to several rounds of anatomically correct cupcakes, other pun-packed gifts included:
- A real hula hoop decorated with 20 bags of Hula Hoops snacks Phillips brought back from the U.K. for Dr. Kiran with a request that she give Phillips “a very nice mastectomy with a good-looking scar”
- “Milk” stout, a dark thick ale first mass produced in England
- “Jugs” of saltwater for the tissue expander fills
Townsend recalled, “We asked them to guess the significance of each obscure gift. It was hysterical!”
“My boobs did a good job for many years”
“I’ve gone quite small, actually, but I’m not upset I lost my breast,” said Phillips. “It was my choice to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, so I could avoid radiation treatment. For me, breast cancer has been just a bump in the road. It slowed me down for a bit. Then, it was back to full speed ahead.”
She said her “boobs” did a good job of feeding her babies and were lovely for many years. When it came time for surgery, she bid them “cheerio.”
Phillips joked, “I Marie Kondo’d my boobs!”
After breast surgery, “I awoke in post-op, looked down straightaway and discovered a little cleavage because my plastic surgeon, Dr. Christina Busuito, had given my tissue expander its first fill with saline,” Phillips said.
Dr. Busuito added saline to Phillips’ tissue expander weekly over six appointments until it reached the breast size she and Dr. Busuito decided on. In a separate surgery, it was swapped out for a permanent silicone implant.
“Being downsized” is Phillips’ description of her breast reduction surgery on her left side for improved symmetry.
“Dr. Busuito performed miracle liposuction, transferring the fat to my reconstructed right breast, which she used to give it a more natural look,” she said.
“A support network like no other”
Joined by their friends, Townsend and Phillips had great fun planning and shopping for the tropical party based on an elaborate joke for that final saline injection, translating saline to “jugs” of salt water, beaches, palm trees, coconuts, surf boards, flower leis and a ukulele.
Twice a week, Phillips hosts her devoted friends for yoga in her basement followed by tea and biscuits.
“Ours is a lively practice we call ‘yogapalooza,’” Townsend explained. “It’s all jokes and laughs, and offers a support network like no other.”
No woman should fear the unknown
Confidently unveiling her newly reconstructed breasts to her supportive network of friends, Phillips feels it important to demystify breast cancer. She said no woman should be struck by fear of the unknown.
“I want women to get a mammogram every year and whenever something doesn’t look spot on,” Phillips advised. “For example, I had a small mark on my breast and went to have it checked out. I won’t let Gaynor forget her suggestion that my spot was ring worm. Ring worm, can you believe it?”
She chose not to Google for answers. Instead, Phillips found her breast cancer experts the old-fashioned way. She made appointments, got to know them and, of course, made them laugh.
“I trust my instincts when meeting new people, including doctors,” explained Phillips. “I had a good feeling about Dr. Kiran, Dr. Busuito and their staffs, who all were supremely professional. I recommend them unreservedly.”
Feeling more at home in her body
Phillips’ newest adventure is participating in barre fitness classes at a senior center near her home.
Far from her normal yoga class where laughing and chatting are the norm, barre class is less about breathing and more about moving and being active. It’s a high-energy, full-body workout.Phillips wants to improve her level of fitness, strength and flexibility: “I’m feeling the burn and proud that I am for pushing my boundaries.”