MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A North Minneapolis woman says it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. She was destined to get cancer. She was tired of waiting for the diagnosis.
Thirty-nine-year-old Melissa Gonzales is trying to outwit breast cancer.
“I am putting myself out there in a really vulnerable position, but I want it to be honest,” she said. “I had my second child, finished nursing, it was time.”
Some might say she took drastic measures. But she saw prophylactic mastectomy as a preemptive strike. The elective surgery removes both breasts.
“(Surgery) reduces the risk of getting breast cancer by over 90 percent. And those to me are really good odds. If I could apply those odds favorably to the lottery, I’d be out there buying tickets,” she said.
The surgery was an easy decision for Gonzales, when you consider her family history.
“My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed at age 38. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 52 and she passed away from breast cancer a few years after that,” Gonzales said.
Her great-grandmother also battled the disease.
But, when Gonzales researched the surgery, she struggled to find other women in the same situation.
“Had I had a cancer diagnosis, I would have had plenty of resources, but being on this side, I had to navigate it myself,” she said.
That’s when she created a blog and asked Minneapolis commercial photographer Doug Knutson to capture the most vulnerable side of her journey. He followed her through every appointment, the surgery and the scars that followed.
“I threw my life up publicly,” Gonzales said. “Pulling back the curtain, to be literally and figuratively naked to the world, so that I can help be there for other people.”
From Knutson’s view, bravery carried Gonzales through the before and after. He photographs Nobel Peace Prize winners, but says he jumped at the chance to document Gonzales’ journey.
“It was pretty emotional, recognizing her courage and the process she is going through. And just all the beautiful love and support she has had from her family and friends. Her husband (Jaime) just holding hands with her, touching her hair, feeding her ice chips, showing a tremendous amount of love and care,” Knutson said.
When the surgery was over, Gonzales woke to see beauty redefined.
“A couple of days later, the bandages came off, I looked in my reflection in the window, and I felt strong. And I didn’t feel broken,” she said.
So, she says, baring her soul is survival, for other women, and above all, for her children – 6-year-old Milla and 1-year-old Nico. Milla sang “Happy Birthday” to her mom, on Gonzales’ 39th birthday on March 9. She hopes of many more celebrations to come.
“I don’t advocate everybody does this. It’s a very personal decision but I believe this has definitely prolonged my life,” said Gonzales.
Her blog is titled Greater than the Sum of my Parts, and with certainty, Gonzales already gained much more than she’s lost.
“Even though I may be losing very key pieces to myself, my femininity, and my identity, and that they don’t define me, and I am greater than that,” she said.
The Mayo Clinic says women who are candidates for prophylactic mastectomy have already had cancer in one breast, have a family history, a mother or relative diagnosed before age 50, positive results from genetic testing, radiation therapy before age 30, or have dense breast tissue.
Gonzales will spend the next year undergoing reconstructive surgery. Follow her progress on her blog.