In November 2011, Dr. Ron Israeli and his patient Lucienne Colombo appeared on ABC News to talk about their project called "Breast Reconstruction: Restoring Wholeness." This sculpture project helps women process their breast cancer and breast reconstruction experience through art. The project addresses the emotional needs of women as they decide whether to undergo a mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
Interviewer: We've heard a lot about breast cancer prevention and treatment, but there is a component that is not spoken about as often. The physical and emotional impact that comes with the loss of a woman's breast from the treatment or prevention of cancer. Joining me now is Dr. Ron Israeli, a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction. He's also a sculptor who developed a project called, "Breast Reconstruction: Restoring Wholeness." And he created life cast breast sculptures of six of his patients as a way to offer hope to the newly diagnosed.
And also joining him is breast cancer survivor and patient of his, Lucienne Colombo. Thanks to both of you so much for being here today. Lucienne, I'm going to start off by playing a sound bite of yours where you speak about the project.
Lucienne Colombo: It just was a bad but good dream. I had qualified to be a conductor at the Long Island Railroad. I bought a house. I was ready to really push forward and have a life, meet somebody. Who knew? Everything was going to be good. And then they said, "You have breast cancer." Oh my God.
Interviewer: So Lucienne, that was the point in your life when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer. How long ago was that?
Lucienne Colombo: July 21st, 2008.
Interviewer: How are you now? You look fantastic. How are you now?
Lucienne Colombo: Awesome.
Interviewer: You beat it! Yes!
Lucienne Colombo: I did beat it.
Interviewer: Great! Congratulations. Wonderful to hear. And how did you first get in touch with Dr. Israeli?
Lucienne Colombo: Through Mollie Sugarman who was there when I was diagnosed. And she referred me to use Dr. Israeli and it was the best decision.
Interviewer: Was it a complicated time for you? A very emotional time?
Lucienne Colombo: It was very emotional. It was at that point everything goes quickly. You're in a rush to do everything. You want results tomorrow, the next day. So yeah, you just kind of follow the wave. You just ride the wave and you wind up where you wind up is hopefully where you should be.
Interviewer: Exactly. Exactly. And Dr. Israeli, tell us how you came up with this concept of sculpting your patients' breasts to give them a sense of hope.
Dr. Israeli: You know since I started my practice in plastic surgery, I started working with a sculptor and various sculpture projects. And there was one project in particular where we did a life cast of not a patient but a model. And it just occurred to me that this might be something that I can apply to my breast reconstruction patients. And it was almost a way that I could show in a tangible way, to give them a tangible understanding, a visible sort of heightened awareness through a three dimensional sculpture of what the process of breast reconstruction really is.
Interviewer: Because it can be terrifying for a woman. At one point you say in your documentary that some of your patients would rather not be treated, not have a mastectomy than lose their breast and all that that entails.
Dr. Israeli: Right. And fortunately that's not most women. The quality of what we can achieve now in breast reconstruction is so much better than it was in the past. And it's on the forefront of national healthcare agendas. And it's out in the media so that women know that there's that option for reconstruction. But yeah the fear of mastectomy is a very real one. And again being able to see something through a project like this.
One of the women that I did the life cast of had a mastectomy, she hasn't had reconstruction. And during the exhibit we were able to see her reaction. Her reaction not only to seeing herself having had a mastectomy but her reaction seeing the other life cast sculptures which were all of women who've had reconstruction.
Interviewer: And what was her reaction?
Dr. Israeli: Well, I think it kind of affirmed in her mind that there's a light in the end of the tunnel. She's going to be okay. And the decision to do reconstruction for her is the right one.
Interviewer: So in the end she did decide?
Dr. Israeli: She decided to do it. She hasn't done it yet. But that's the kind of, I guess, response or reaction, that I would hope that a project like this could elicit. To inspire. To hope. To provide hope.
Interviewer: Do most patients opt for reconstruction?
Dr. Israeli: Well, the truth is in the United States reconstruction is not offered to actually most women that undergo mastectomies. And while they may not be true in
Interviewer: You mean, it's not covered by insurance?
Dr. Israeli: It's not that it's not covered by insurance because there's a Women's Healthcare Right Act of 1998 that does to some extent mandate insurance coverage for breast reconstruction for women with breast cancer. But I think that there's availability in some parts of the country that's lacking. There's sort of awareness that's lacking. So, in fact, while across the country most women may not be even offered it. Certainly in our community it's something that really most women opt to do.
Interviewer: And Lucienne, you opted for reconstruction, correct?
Lucienne Colombo: Definitely.
Interviewer: Are you happy you did so?
Lucienne Colombo: It was a no brainer.
Interviewer: Yeah. Right away you knew that was what you were going to do.
Lucienne Colombo: It was four weeks and two days from diagnosis to a double mastectomy. And then I had my reconstruction a year later.
Interviewer: And how wonderful to see you sitting here so happy and healthy and beautiful. Lucienne Colombo, thank you so much. Dr. Ron Israeli, thank you so much for being here us today.
Dr. Israeli: Thank you.
Lucienne Colombo: Thank you.