Kathy Conway is is the founder of Complete Shaping, an integrated prosthetic mastectomy clothing company, and a 13-year breast cancer survivor on a mission to help fellow survivors find comfort in their post-surgical lives. She is also an advocate of a woman's right to become informed of her breast density as well as reconstruction options after a mastectomy – including aesthetic flat closure due to her personal experience with breast cancer. To learn more about how her tumors were not detectable on her mammograms, how accepting her new body has been her biggest challenge, what lead her to find her cancer tribe and more, read our latest In Her Words Q&A below.
Name: Kathy Conway
Location: Chicago, IL
Current Health Status: Remission
When were you diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52, stage 3c. A small cluster of calcifications was found on a mammogram and I was called back for an ultrasound, which detected 3 tumors in my right breast. I later found out that my tumors were undetectable in this current mammogram as well as past mammograms over the years because they were hidden by my dense breast tissue. Several organizations around the world now are advocating that women with dense breast tissue be informed of their density and offered follow-up scans such as ultrasound and/or MRIs to get a clear picture of what is going on in the breast, since mammograms do not penetrate the dense tissue as well.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
“Huh? I have no family history.” I don’t believe anybody does much research on breast cancer, unless you personally or someone close to you is affected by it. I now know that only about 20% of women diagnosed with breast cancer have a family history.
How did your friends and family take the news?
Well, of course, everyone was taken aback. I am so lucky that I have a very supportive family and friends network who were with me the entire journey. As any survivor can tell you, cancer affects not only the person diagnosed, but it also affects the entire family.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
Since I had multiple tumors in my right breast, that one had to go. My surgeon originally suggested removing the right breast, reconstructing that breast with an implant and then reducing the size of the left breast since I was quite large breasted. I said no, I would like him to take the left breast also, prophylactically, since they were going to mess with it anyways and it still had dense breast tissue which got me into so much trouble in the first place. I also said I was not at all interested in reconstruction since I didn’t want anything foreign in my body, didn’t want to mess with any muscles, and I truly just wanted to have one surgery and be done. My surgeon agreed and gave me a double mastectomy with a beautiful aesthetic flat closure, along with the removal of 22 lymph nodes.
I then went through 6 months of chemo, while also participating in a clinical trial, followed by 6 weeks of radiation, then Zometa infusions every 6 months for 3 years. I started hormonal therapy with 2 years of Tamoxifen, then switched to Anastrozole, which I’ve taken for 10 years now and will continue indefinitely.
Were you able to work through treatment?
Yes, I only took 8 days off for the surgery because I could not drive with the drains still in. But I worked through chemo and radiation. I remember doing chemo after work on late Monday afternoons, then showing up the next morning at work with my ginger ale and crackers on Tuesday.
Where and how have you found the best care?
I am so grateful to have such an amazing team of oncology professionals at NorthShore University HealthSystem. They truly saved my life.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies? If so, what kind, and have they been they beneficial?
I participated in another research study between the hospital and a local cancer wellness center. They were developing a program where a small group of survivors would meet weekly for 2 hours for 6 months and then once monthly for another 6 months, during which time we would do some meditation, get some educational info on a topic and then support talk among the survivors. The program was a success for the cancer center and they were able to develop other programs from their findings, but it was also such a success for the small group of women who I participated with, since we still, after all these years, meet for dinner monthly.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
Absolutely my family. My husband and kids are the best and I have also gotten great support from extended family and friends. My cancer tribe now is fellow survivors, who I meet through business, events, social media, etc. It’s comforting to meet others who are going through the same things you are experiencing. Everyone is so supportive and helpful to make the next woman’s journey a little easier, if possible.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
My new body. After my double mastectomy with flat closure, I felt free. I am comfortable flat. But the problem comes when I’m looking for clothing. Women’s clothing is made for breasts, and if you don’t have any, there’s extra material gathering in the chest area. I thought I’d wear prosthetics but quickly found I couldn’t because of that dang bra band, which would lie on top of my scars, causing pain and irritation, and also I was concerned with the tight restrictive band, since I am at high risk of developing lymphedema because of all the lymph nodes removed. So for over 8 years, I lived flat 24/7 and had a limited wardrobe. I wanted to expand my clothing choices so I developed a top with integrated prosthetics that did not have an elastic bra band and was all one-piece so you could just put on and go. Now I have a top that is easy to wear, offers a cost savings rather than buying all 3 pieces (prosthetics and cami), and is super soft and comfortable. I found a solution to a big problem and felt compelled to share with other survivors/previvors.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
That I had dense breast tissue, what it meant, and that there are other scanning options that could be made available to me.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
I would hope that her surgical team would inform her of all of her reconstruction options, including aesthetic flat closure and the benefits and risks of all those options. I’ve met so many women who are surprised that “no reconstruction” or “flat” was an option. A lot of surgeons skip that option and just offer implants or autologous tissue reconstruction.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Because of my experiences with my new body, I am now able to help other women find a unique and comfortable way to wear prosthetics, whether they wear them all the time or just occasionally.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
How have you changed?
I try to live my life purposefully, being there for my family and friends, and helping others where I am able.