Alejandra Campoverdi is a carrier of the BRCA2 gene mutation. The former White House aide to President Barack Obama and advocate for women’s health issues learned the news after spending a lifetime of seeing the women in her family pass away from breast cancer. First, there was her great-grandmother who died soon after her birth and then her grandmother who passed away when she was 16. While Campoverdi was in her twenties, she watched as her mother battled against her breast cancer diagnosis (she ultimately survived) and just last year, her aunt was given the same diagnosis. A destructive genetic trait linked the women in her family together, but it wasn’t until 2013 when Campoverdi was tested for the trait that she learned the mutation put her at an 85 percent risk of developing breast cancer.
This month, coincidentally at the same time women and men across the country campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness, Campoverdi will be undergoing a preventive double mastectomy. The procedure will reduce her risk of contracting breast cancer by at least 95 percent.
FIERCE spoke with Campoverdi about her decision to be proactive about her health now and what her upcoming surgery means to her as far as freedom and understanding her womanhood.
Q: How at risk did doctors say you were for getting breast cancer before your double mastectomy?
A: Right now, my risk of developing breast cancer over my lifetime is 85 percent. After one surgery, it will go down to under 3 percent.
Q: What have your doctors told you about the results of your surgery and the chances it will give you?
CREDIT: acampoverdi / Instagram
A: If someone told me in the past that one day I would chose to remove my two healthy breasts, I would have never believed them. But when I realized that undergoing a preventive double mastectomy would lower my risk of developing breast cancer from 85 percent to under 3 percent, it was a no-brainer for me. My great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and two aunts have all had breast cancer so given my family history and my own predisposition as a carrier of the BRCA2 gene mutation, I felt it was all but certain that I would eventually have to battle the disease myself. To be clear, this is a very personal decision with no blanket right or wrong answer. Each woman must decide for herself what the pros and cons of surveillance versus surgery are. For me, it has been an empowering decision to take my health into my own hands.
Q: What surgical process will you undergo to ensure your health in the next few months?
A: I have already started the surgical process and actually have my mastectomy incisions as we speak. The first step was a “nipple delay”, which was performed by my breast surgeon Dr. Kristi Funk on September 24. A nipple delay, usually done about two weeks prior to a nipple-sparing mastectomy, involves severing the blood vessels beneath the nipples so that they are no longer dependent on the breast tissue for blood supply. By forcing trauma on the area, you are essentially helping your nipples survive the mastectomy. They get used to finding an alternate blood supply, which then decreases the chance of necrosis. This procedure is not included by every surgeon but I agreed with Dr. Funk that taking this extra precautionary step was worth it in my case. My double mastectomy follows on October 10.
Q: Why are you having a double mastectomy done now?
A: Once you’ve decided you will undergo a preventive double mastectomy, there’s still the question of when exactly is the right time. Again, this is a very personal decision and one that should be done in consultation with your doctor. In my case, my doctor recommended I proceed with surgery when I was ten years younger than my mother was when she developed breast cancer. This is that year.
Q: What are your plans after surgery? Have you decided whether or not you will have breast reconstruction surgery?
CREDIT: acampoverdi / Instagram
A: There are many options for breast reconstruction, and some people choose to forego it all together. I chose direct to implant reconstruction, after consultation with my doctors. Because of my body type and other factors, I am a good candidate for this method and I like the idea of reducing the number of surgeries I’ll need. If all goes as planned, when I wake up from my mastectomy, I will already be on the other side of my breast reconstruction. It’s incredible to think that I’ll be able to go under with my natural breasts and wake up to my reconstructed breasts.
Q: How has your Latinidad and the lessons from the Latinas in your life helped you to find strength during this time?
A: When I first found out I was BRCA positive, I had a long car ride home alone to think about it. I was overwhelmed by many emotions, including an unexpected feeling of connectedness with the generations of women in my family who have battled breast cancer. I am the third generation who has shared not only an incremental immigrant bloodline, but also emotional inheritances related to this bloodline – as Latinas, as survivors, and as fighters. I can feel the deep faith and grit of my ancestors within me and beside me during this time. Yet seeing our community struggle today with a lack of access to quality healthcare, preventive screening, and other disparities in women’s health, made this experience feel a lot bigger than just me. This is why I have founded The Well Woman Coalition, an initiative to empower women of color to have agency over their own health and healing through awareness, education, and advocacy. Many advocacy efforts around women’s health lack diversity and cultural competency. The importance of early detection when it comes to breast cancer cannot be overstated. Yet there are many health disparities that women of color face which present barriers to early detection. Many women of color lack access to preventive screening and treatment options which contribute to the fact that they’re more likely to be diagnosed with cancer in advanced stages. As a Latina, I understand firsthand the deep need for cultural considerations when addressing the health care needs of diverse and multicultural communities, and I am committed to helping to close that gap.
Q: What are your most immediate plans for self-care after your mastectomy?
A: I’m not the type of person who will push myself to do more than I can right away so I’ll be staying down and off the grid for a bit. It’s important to give ourselves permission to heal and process at our own pace so that’s what I’ll be doing in the immediate aftermath of my mastectomy. Once I’m back on my feet, I look forward to exercising again – I miss spinning and hiking already! And since I’ll be coming out of my recovery around the holidays, I’d love to plan a celebration trip somewhere warm to just lay on the beach, eat ceviche, and feel grateful for the strength of my body, the support of my friends and family, and the medical advances that made this extraordinary journey possible.
Q: What has this entire process told you about what it means to be a woman?
CREDIT: acampoverdi / Instagram
A: I’ve thought a lot about my relationship with my breasts throughout this process yet one message has been central to my experience as we reach our final goodbye. Our femininity is defined by much more than our body parts and our beauty. Our courage, our grit, and our soul are what make up our worth as women. Losing our breasts or altering our breasts won’t take that away or change anything fundamental about our feminine power. We are whole – with or without breasts. Always have been and always will be.
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