Dr. Julie Park, professor and plastic surgeon with the UTMB Department of Surgery and the director of Breast Reconstruction at UTMB Health, is just one member of the multidisciplinary UTMB team changing lives for cancer patients and survivors like Yotarsha Hill.
|Yotarsha Hill’s life changed on July 1, 2017. It was her 43rd birthday, and she expected to have a low-key and relaxing day.
“I was taking my shower and I decided to do my breast self-exam,” she said. “On one side, everything was fine, but on the other side, I felt a lump.” In that moment, she remembered she had been experiencing itching sensations there and knew something was wrong.
“What a birthday gift,” Yotarsha thought. As the water ran over her, she cried. And then she prayed. “This is God telling me ‘This is your second chance,’” she thought. “You got this!”
When she told her mother and grandmother, they all prayed together.
A few months later, Yotarsha learned she had stage 2 cancer, which meant it was confined to the breast. It was also determined that she was positive for the BRCA 1 gene, one of two genes most commonly affected in hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.
For Yotarsha, 2018 began with a double mastectomy and implantation of tissue expanders that would be used to reconstruct her breasts after treatment. Adding the tissue expanders at the time of mastectomy can reduce the number of surgeries required for a patient, which sounded good to Yotarsha.
“That was my first surgery ever in my life,” she said. “I was very scared.”
Whenever a mastectomy is covered by insurance, so are breast reconstruction and prostheses thanks to the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998.
“A lot of women don’t realize reconstruction is covered as part of their cancer journey,” said Dr. Julie Park, plastic surgeon and Director of Breast Reconstruction at UTMB Health.
Even after the 1998 law guaranteed access to reconstruction, awareness of that access lagged with only 30 percent of breast cancer patients undergoing reconstructive surgery. In 2015, Congress passed the Breast Cancer Patient Education Act to ensure breast cancer patients—particularly of racial and ethnic minority groups—are aware of breast reconstruction, prostheses and other options.
Further supporting this cause is Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day, which is a national observance recognized on the third Wednesday of October. To commemorate the day, educate people in local communities and honor breast cancer survivors, UTMB Health hosts its own event each BRA day—a tradition now in its 9th year.
While widespread awareness and resources are one key part of every cancer patient’s journey, so too is a strong, stable group of cheerleaders and people they can lean on during a tough time.
Luckily for Yotarsha, she had a phenomenal support group of family and friends helping her through every step of her journey.
“The worst part was the foggy head,” she said, adding that she wasn’t as sick as many people are during chemo treatments. “I felt bad during the week, but by the weekend, I’d be up and ready to go.”
Yotarsha rang the bell for the first time in late summer 2018. In September of that year, she began radiation treatments. “Then I got to ring the bell again,” she said. “Oh my God, that was the best feeling.”
Although she started her cancer care journey elsewhere, Yotarsha later transitioned to UTMB Health, where Dr. Park led her care during reconstruction. Yotarsha said she appreciated the level of concern for her well-being and the willingness to listen to her and answer all of her questions.
For Yotarsha, her breast reconstruction has not been without setbacks. Yotarsha had issues with skin deterioration due to radiation.
“She’s incredibly slender, so several rounds of fat grafting have been required,” Dr. Park said, adding that many patients require more than one round of plastic surgery.
Dr. Park recommends that breast cancer patients ask whether their cancer surgeon partners with a plastic surgeon.
“I’m fortunate to work in a multidisciplinary environment here at UTMB, where care is coordinated in concert with other physicians,” Dr. Park said, adding that in many parts of the country, coordinated care is less accessible.
UTMB Health offers comprehensive breast health services for women across the region, including imaging, surgery, plastic surgery and medical and radiation oncology at one of the newest and best-equipped facilities in our area.
“We provide patients a coordinated breast care experience with some of the most experienced providers in the state,” said Dr. Suzanne Klimberg, professor and chief of the UTMB Health Division of Surgical Oncology within the Department of Surgery. “Our care team prioritizes your needs and goals throughout your cancer journey, from first detection to survivorship support and beyond.”
For Yotarsha, breast construction is just a part of the transformation she’s experienced since that birthday back in 2017. She tries to live in the moment now while having new enthusiasm for the future.
When she was diagnosed, Yotarsha worked in the fast food industry. But, inspired by her medical journey, she went back to school, and in a month, will complete her high school education.
She plans to become an X-ray technician and would like to work as a traveling X-ray tech, a vocation inspired by what she’s learned over the past few years and her recent job as a COVID-19 screener at the Port of Galveston.
“I met people from all over the world,” Yotarsha said of her job at the port. “I met a lot of my pink sisters as they were going on cruises to celebrate.”
Today, she believes in sharing her story and offering support to anyone who reaches out and is going through a similar journey. “I’ve been there. Overall, it made me more positive and upbeat.”
Her advice to any woman who finds an ordinary day disrupted by an unwelcome discovery.
“Pray,” Yotarsha said. “Keep your head up. It is hard. But pray.”
UTMB will celebrate BRA (Breast Reconstruction Awareness) Day on Wednesday, Oct. 19 with events in Galveston, Clear Lake and League City. For more information on those events, as well as Breast Health services and providers, visit
utmbhealth.com/breasthealth or call (409) 772-7150.