In the fall of 2011, Gina Carbo-Perez was going to Las Vegas. She and her husband, José, had booked the trip, planning to renew their vows. Everything was set.
That is, until she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Carbo-Perez, who had breast implant surgery in 1989, had been advised to get yearly mammograms, but hadn’t. In 2011, she noticed her breasts changing shape. She chalked the changes up to the age of her implants and bought a new bra. Three new bras later, she went to see her gynecologist, who told her, “We need to do that mammogram.”
The implants made it difficult to decipher the mammogram, but the doctor thought the results looked a little funny; Carbo-Perez was sent to get an ultrasound, where doctors discovered four tumors in her breasts. The largest was almost two-and-a-half centimeters across. Carbo-Perez was diagnosed with stage two invasive ductal carcinoma.
Canceling her trip wasn’t a big deal, Carbo-Perez said, but telling her family, including son Hayden, 20, was difficult.
She broke the news on a Friday. “I said, you have the weekend to scream, curse at God, cry, whatever you have to do, but come Monday, it’s over,” remembered Carbo-Perez, who “did the five stages of grief all in one weekend.” She didn’t buy Halloween candy because she thought she was going to die.
Less than 30 days after her diagnosis, Carbo-Perez underwent a double mastectomy and partial breast reconstruction. For some, this would have been dizzyingly swift, but Carbo-Perez was ready. “The hardest part is waiting from the time they tell you you have it till the time you start doing something about it,” she said. Her six-hour surgery and subsequent recovery at Omega Hospital “wasn’t pretty,” but Carbo-Perez focused on the positives: for example, the tummy tuck that came along with the first phase of reconstruction, and the support she found in a close community of patients, doctors and nurses.
After learning that Tamoxifen, a drug given to breast cancer patients to prevent feeding cancerous cells with estrogen, was linked to uterine cancer, Carbo-Perez decided to undergo a hysterectomy for her own peace of mind. Instead of worrying that she would develop uterine cancer, “I’d rather just move on,” she said. A commercial loan assistant at Whitney Bank since 1999, she was back at work two weeks after that surgery.
Carbo-Perez was shocked to learn that she had most likely had breast cancer for seven to eight years without knowing it. “Even with all the racing and running and wearing pink, I didn’t know what the symptoms were,” she said. She went into her diagnosis thinking that there was no history of breast cancer in her family, because they had never talked about it; in fact, multiple relatives had been diagnosed with the disease. “If someone would have told me, I would have gone earlier,” she said.
Now, Carbo-Perez urges women to talk to their families about breast cancer, and be proactive about seeking early detection. “Black, white, young girls, old ladies, they all come with their stories, and it’s all the same story,” she said. “We’ve all got that same family worry — ‘Am I gonna make it?’”
Carbo-Perez recently finished chemotherapy and will soon undergo the final phase of her breast reconstruction, when surgeons will complete the process they began at the time of her mastectomy. Next January, she, José and Hayden plan to take that trip to Vegas to celebrate Hayden’s birthday and Carbo-Perez’s “new lease on life.”
Like many women, Carbo-Perez did not know that reconstruction with a patient’s own tissue was an option after mastectomy — and that insurance providers are required to cover it. She’s eagerly anticipating the results of her reconstructive surgery. “Cancer takes away everything that makes you a woman,” she said. “You have to rebuild yourself.”