Stories of Mastectomy and Reconstruction: Mimi
Mimi Monteiro
October 5, 2017

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Breast cancer was familiar to Mimi, even before she was diagnosed. Her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer three times. She was treated with a double mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. Fifteen years later, she is cancer-free. Mimi’s cousin Annette, her best friend, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and passed away from the disease that same year at age 42. Mimi herself was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in April 2015 at age 45, the same age her mother was first diagnosed. She had a double mastectomy with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction. Later she also had a preventive hysterectomy because the cancer was hormone-receptor-positive. She took tamoxifen and an aromatase inhibitor but has since stopped.

Mimi is one of three women whose stories are featured in the Breastcancer.org video series on reconstruction after mastectomy.

Listen to the podcast to hear Mimi discuss:

  • how she made her decisions about surgery and reconstruction
  • the positives she believes breast cancer brought to her life
  • what she would say to a woman who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer

Running time: 16:51

Crbs podcast

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This podcast is made possible by the generous support of the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans.

Jamie DePolo: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Breastcancer.org podcast. I’m Jamie DePolo, the senior editor of Breastcancer.org. Our guest today is Mimi Monteiro, one of the women whose story of breast cancer diagnosis and breast reconstruction is featured on the Breastcancer.org site.

Breast cancer was familiar to Mimi even before she was diagnosed. Her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer 3 times. She was treated with a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy. Fifteen years later, she is cancer-free. Mimi’s cousin Annette, her best friend, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and passed away from the disease that same year at age 42.

Mimi herself was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in April 2015 at age 45, the same age that her mother was first diagnosed. She had a double mastectomy with immediate DIEP flap reconstruction. Later, she also had a preventive hysterectomy because the cancer was hormone-receptor-positive. She took tamoxifen and an aromatase inhibitor but has since stopped. Mimi is one of three women whose stories are featured in the Breastcancer.org video series on reconstruction after mastectomy. Today she is going to talk to us about making the videos and sharing her story. Mimi, welcome to the podcast.

Mimi Monteiro: Thank you for having me, Jamie.

Jamie DePolo: It’s so nice to talk to you. I am curious, what was your first thought when people from the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery asked you if you’d like to participate in these videos?

Mimi Monteiro: I was quite honored, actually, because I had talked to so many women that I met through the Center who had amazing stories, stories of strength and overcoming such big battles and you know coming out so beautifully on the other end. And to be among that group, just to be asked, it was such an honor to be able to share my little story, part of this bigger picture. So it was quite an honor.

Jamie DePolo: Did you have any hesitation at all? Did you think like, “Oh, I’m not sure I want to share everything”?

Mimi Monteiro: No. I had no reservations for myself. I think part of my feeling always has been the ability to open myself up to others. So for me, there was no hesitation at all. My only concern, as always everything I do, is concern for my children and my husband and how they would receive it. So that was the only reservation I had, and when I checked with them and they were 100% on board, it was full steam ahead.

Jamie DePolo: They’re in the video along with you. And they had no reservations either about participating?

Mimi Monteiro: No. They didn’t, and I was excited to hear that they didn’t, because my sons did actually struggle with my initial diagnosis. It hit them very hard, harder than I thought it would have, and they were quite reserved and weren’t very open about it when I was initially diagnosed. So to come to this 2 years later and present it to them, and the fact that they were really open about it AND willing to participate in the videos AND invite their friends to participate in the videos, it spoke volumes about how much they had healed, too. So that I was excited about sharing.

Jamie DePolo: That’s wonderful. And how old are your sons?

Mimi Monteiro: My oldest is now 18, a freshman in college, and my youngest is 16 and a sophomore in high school.

Jamie DePolo: So they were a little bit younger when you were diagnosed.

Mimi Monteiro: They were. They were. It was…you know, 2 years prior, and those teenage puberty years are tumultuous for boys and girls. And so they had a lot of their own issues to deal with, and then mom throws this to them, so they did rise to the occasion and handled it like champs. But I was just so excited to kind of share this video experience with them and my husband and my mom as well.

Jamie DePolo: Now, when you were considering types of reconstruction, can you talk to us a little bit about how you made that decision and why you decided to have immediate reconstruction?

Mimi Monteiro: Absolutely. So as you stated earlier in the introduction, my mom has been diagnosed 3 times, and so she really has had quite a long and arduous journey through her cancer diagnosis and into remission. She struggled with her reconstruction only because she waited to bring out the big guns after her body had already been put through hell.

Jamie DePolo: When you say bring out the big guns, what do you mean by that?

Mimi Monteiro: Initially, when she was diagnosed at 45, the same age that I was, she took a very conservative approach. I would’ve done the same thing she did -- diagnosed at 45, still young, no prior family history and the first diagnosis. This was her physician’s recommendation. Second opinion, same recommendation. I would’ve done the same thing. You want to conserve your breast tissue as much as possible. I totally understand that.

So she just opted for the lumpectomy with the radiation and the chemotherapy to try to save as much breast tissue as she could. She was still a very young woman, a mother, a wife, all of these things. So that was certainly an option for me, too, when I was diagnosed at 45, so young, caught so early. But after two diagnoses, two rounds of chemotherapy, twice radiation, her breast tissue was destroyed, and so by the time the third time came around and she was, you know, “I’m done with this, let’s have a double mastectomy, reconstruction,” her tissue was already so damaged that the reconstruction failed. And now she’s just left with a lot of scar tissue and no mounding, no nothing.

And it took a good 15 years of her life, this battle with cancer. It ate up 15 years of her life. Now, it didn’t stop her from doing all the things she loved, but it was still there and present. And having watched that journey with her made it so simple for me, like, “Oh, my goodness, no, we are going aggressive and big the first time. We are not messing with this.” I wasn’t giving cancer that much time of my life. I just wasn’t.

So that played a big part in my decision early on. And having a parent, my mom, diagnosed 3 times, you know it was always in the back of my head. I knew it was coming. Like I just knew it was coming. How can I not have that genetic component? Even though we did the BRCA1 and [BRCA]2 testing and I was negative? I just felt there was something else there. I was mentally prepared as much as you can be for that kind of diagnosis. And already mentally prepared with, “I think I want to do this,” so when I get the word that it’s positive, I knew a starting point and what options I wanted to explore.

Jamie DePolo: How did you feel when you were talking about your story on camera? I know a lot of women talk to other women, but people have told me that when they make these videos, it’s a little bit different talking about it on camera.

Mimi Monteiro: It is. It is, and like I said, I loved being able to share the story with my sons and my husband and my mom in it. That was really cool. And seeing and having my son’s friends present, you know, it really spoke to the fact that it takes a lot of people to get through this. You need a lot of support, and I loved that part of it. Sharing it on the video, it really was a great experience. It was a great experience.

Jamie DePolo: Did it bring up any feelings that maybe you felt you were repressing or hadn’t thought about in a while? Or was it just like, “No, I am here, I’m talking about my story”?

Mimi Monteiro: Yeah. It was interesting because I had been 2 years removed from the initial diagnosis, so I really had kind of put it behind me and was moving forward. And so it was interesting to revisit it, some of those raw emotions were still there unbeknownst to me, and it brought up some emotions that I share with my mom that we really had just kind of let go. So again, it was healing. It was another part of the healing, maybe a layer that I hadn’t addressed earlier. So it was really a positive experience. And I made some great friends along the way.

Jamie DePolo: That’s wonderful. Was there one part of doing the video that stands out to you at all?

Mimi Monteiro: Yes. I know my mom struggled a lot watching me go through this battle, having gone through it herself. And when you’re a mother, you never stop being a mother, I don’t care how old you are. And the fact that I was a grown woman with children, I’m still her child, and I know that it was very painful for her to walk with me through that journey, knowing what she had been through herself.

And so when I was actually at home and just by myself doing the shoot with Sean, just talking one-on-one to him, and she was upstairs listening — and I knew, I could just feel she was present and I knew she was listening — and as I’m talking about my journey, and I just hear her crying in the background. And just knowing how much it still hurt her — that was the hardest part of the journey was watching the people around me hurt and ache through my fight. Not for myself, that was easy. You know, I had my faith, and there’s nothing I can’t do without that. But knowing that my mom hurt so much watching me go through that, or my boys, or my husband.

And then as she heard me telling my story, and all the healing that took place and what a blessing it really has turned out to be, and how I think of it as such a positive experience. I really do not think of having cancer and having treatment as a negative experience. It’s brought so many positive things into my life, and afterwards she just gave me the biggest hug because it was affirmation to her, like “Yes, she’s healed too, she’s done, we’re moving forward and we’ve put this to bed.”

Jamie DePolo: That’s great. Could you share with us a little bit, you talk about the cancer experience bringing so many positives into your life. Could you just tell us about some of those positives?

Mimi Monteiro: Oh, absolutely. You let go of a lot. Initially you know there’s a lot of fear, fear for your life, fear for your children’s future, fear for how is your spouse going to handle this, just the unknown, you know, what’s this going to do to my body and will I be able to survive it. And you learn to let go of all of that, all of the anxiety and the fear and the unknown. And you either embrace your faith and embrace the community around you and find a way to rise above it, or you bow down and lose. And that wasn’t going to be an option for me.

So I am a faithful person. I’ve always been a believer. But when I tell you it took it up to the next level, it took it way up to the next level. And now there’s a joy and a peace that I have every day that I would never give back. I wouldn’t trade it and I earned it. I earned that joy and that peace going through that battle. And with my family, the same thing. Just knowing that they are there. I mean everyone knows, your family’s always there to support you in good times and in bad. But when you go through the bad times and they’re still walking by your side and lifting you up, you think, “Thank you, God, that is a blessing. Thank you for giving them to me to walk with me.”

And then just the whole cancer community as a whole. People just unite around you, from the secretary at the cancer center seeing I’m having a bad day, and she comes from behind her desk to give me a hug, to getting the number of a young mom from another friend and calling her out of the blue to ask her what was her experience with this doctor or this treatment and her taking 3 hours away from her family to just sit there and talk with me. To the brilliant surgeons and oncologists and nurses that you encounter, people like Claire and Sean who are advocating for you know women’s health and treatment of this disease. I mean, it just opened up my world to so many wonderful people I never would have crossed paths with before. Thank you for letting this horrible disease bring all this wonderfulness into my life. Wouldn’t trade it.

Jamie DePolo: That is an amazing outlook that you have, and I wish I could have that for everything in my life that brings me down sometimes, because that’s so impressive. I have one last question for you. So if a woman came to you today and told you that she’d just been diagnosed with breast cancer, what would you say to her?

Mimi Monteiro: I wouldn’t say anything. I would offer a smile and a hug and give her the space to talk. Because I think that initially what you want, you want to unburden this fear and this anxiety, and you want to verbalize it all and put it out there. And then as the questions come up — because they all don’t come up at once, each step of the journey you’re going to have some questions, some fears, some concerns. And just be available and check in. But I think as survivors, the best thing we can do for anyone who’s been recently diagnosed is just to be available, to say, “Hey, I am a testament to what we can do.”

Jamie DePolo: That’s wonderful. Mimi, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve been so generous with your time and your story, we really appreciate it.

Mimi Monteiro: Thank you, and thank you to everyone out there advocating for women for early diagnosis, early treatment. You guys are really making a difference.

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