There is no such thing as an emergency mastectomy!

Having had the privilege of helping many ladies with breast cancer over the last two decades, I have realised that medicine is a vocation, and that health is something to be treasured. 

The body is a temple but, even when we do everything right, eat well, exercise, don’t smoke and use minimal alcohol, events still happen beyond our control. So what have I learnt?

It is your body – not the doctor’s!

Disregard for a woman’s relationship with her breasts, and a lack of understanding of a woman’s psychological make up, often results in poor doctor-patient relationships. I frequently hear doctors saying, “I believe you must have a mastectomy” without listening to the woman and her concerns, and without explaining choices clearly.

There are certain rules to ensure safe cancer management and, just as rules of the road are there to ensure road safety, it is essential that cancer rules are adhered to. Even so, listening to the patient and understanding their physical and psychological make–up is essential.

It amazes me how scared patients are to ask questions of their doctors and how covert people are about wanting second opinions or being too scared to go. It is your body, not the doctor’s! Ask questions about your health,

the procedures suggested, the number of times the doctor has done the procedure, the complications rates in that unit.

When diagnosed, ask your radiologist for two or three names of doctors to see. Tell your doctor you are going for another opinion. When you go for your second opinion do not tell them what the first doctor said.

There is no such thing as an emergency mastectomy. When your car gives you hassles, if you are not happy with the first mechanic you look for another. Why not treat your body with the same respect? Don’t be scared of us doctors! Don’t let us stand on ceremony. We are just people trained in a certain field. I don’t let my patients call me by any title other than Carol.

Take someone with you to listen

When faced with distressing news we take in less than 25% of information!

I recently went through a medical trauma with one of my children, and noticed how even my processing of the medical information was difficult, because my stress and anxiety levels were high. My advice?

1) Write everything down and do not be afraid to ask for re-explanations.

2) Do not make life changing decisions until all the information has been processed, maybe a week, maybe two weeks, take your time.

“Team work” and “no problem that can’t be solved”

These are the mottos by which I live my life. I am acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses and make no qualms about pointing them out. I try and turn my weaknesses into strengths, so my anxious tendencies are honed toward extreme attention to detail and strict adherence to protocols and unit safety rules. I surround myself with people I trust and enable all the members in the team to function better and compensate for weaknesses.

Ladies! You are only as good as your support team, so keep building it. Surround yourself with as many positive people as possible and allow the strengths of certain supporters to compensate for weaknesses in yourself or your other supporters. You will soon find that, with teamwork, there is no problem that can’t be solved!!


Prof Carol-Ann Benn heads up breast cancer centres at Helen Joseph Hospital and Netcare Milpark Hospital. She lectures at Wits University and, in 2002, established the Breast Health Foundation.