Ulla Brunner/Post-Mastectomy Reconstruction


By Lisa Browdy

While leading individuals and groups on the high ropes course at Adventure Park Moab in eastern Utah, Ulla Brunner knows that giving information and choices is the best way to lead her participants to step out of their comfort zones and face their fears.

That theory proved true when Ulla received a frightening diagnosis of Stage II ductal breast cancer. She gathered as much information she could as she embarked on a series of difficult choices. Since the small hospital in Moab wasn’t an option, the first was where to travel for her treatment.

“I spoke with a lady in Moab who had gone through breast cancer, and she was very honest with me,” Ulla recalls. “She was treated at the Huntsman (Cancer Institute) and said it was highly recommended.”

Ulla soon consulted with Edward Nelson, MD at Huntsman Cancer Institute, who after further testing gave her the news that she had “triple negative” breast cancer, one that spreads quickly and can be resistant to treatment. It was clear that her left breast needed to be removed right away, but Ulla still felt she had choices. “Dr. Nelson took a lot of time to explain to me and my husband what to expect when it comes to breast cancer,” Ulla recalls. “He said ‘you can take them both off,’ but the scans showed nothing in the right breast. So I told him that if he found something bad there during surgery he had my permission to take them both, but to save the healthy breast if he could.” The right breast stayed, and follow up genetic testing showed that she didn’t carry the gene that motivated actress and high-profile cancer patient Angelina Jolie to remove both of her breasts as a precaution.

The next choice to make was a complicated one: To have reconstruction surgery or not—and if so, what type? Options included a saline implant, or a self-donation of muscle and fat from elsewhere in the body to create a new breast. Between her active lifestyle at her adventure business, and the fact that she also does public speaking as part of her other career as an event planner and consultant, she knew that she wanted to have some kind of replacement for her missing left breast.

“At first I was not too psyched about the idea of a foreign object in my body, so I asked the plastic surgeon, Dr. Agarwal, to see if my own tissue could be used, “ Ulla said. Her low percentage of body fat, plus the fact that taking muscle from her shoulder would keep her off the ropes courses indefinitely, made it clear that a saline implant would be necessary after all.

This is where too much information proved to be a dangerous thing. “If you go on the Internet and look for pictures of breast reconstruction, all you see are the horror stories!” Ulla insists. “Nobody takes pictures and shows you how it looks if it goes well.”

The mastectomy and reconstruction were performed simultaneously, so that when Ulla awoke from surgery, her implant was in place, though not yet at full size. “It looked nice, not like there was a hole in my chest,” Ulla said. She also remarked that it made the four rounds of chemotherapy easier to take because her expander was gradually inflated at the same time as her chemo treatments, so she could mark the growth as it went along.

Ulla sings the praises of the staff at Huntsman, who took some trouble to schedule her follow up visits, chemotherapy and medical tests so that they could happen on the same day, to lessen the need for four-hour drives between Moab and Salt Lake City. “From the front desk staff to the people pushing carts around, I was treated like a special person,” she says. “I always had the same doctor, and I never had to wait a long time in a little gown on a plastic table.”

Ulla had a special closeness with her chemotherapy nurse, Vicki Rosser, who was also going through treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. “Having a nurse who knew about the side effects and how to deal with them was such a plus,” she said. “I could call her any time and she would talk to me about what worked for her.”

Traveling four hours from home for her treatments was made easier thanks to friends with three kids who lived in Salt Lake City and offered Ulla and her husband, Chris, a place to stay when she came to town for medical care. Between bonding with them and her cancer team at Huntsman, Ulla said, “It’s like I got a new family out of it.”

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