Stonehill Administrator Undergoes Preventative Mastectomy

November 29, 2010


Imagine your foot is stuck under a rock. You need to chop it off for a better chance at survival.

Could you do it?

On one hand, there's a strong chance you'll die if you lay there waiting for help.

On the other hand, well, you'll really miss your foot.

It is a harrowing decision. Not many would be strong enough to opt for voluntary amputation.

Stonehill's Director of Intercultural Affairs Liza Talusan did.

"Would you ever just chop off your hand because you think one day you might get it caught in a car door?" said Talusan, who on November 18 underwent a double mastectomy in order to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer.

The mother of three tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA-1 gene, one of two genes that act as tumor suppressors. A mutation in this gene is linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancers.

Talusan's sister Mary was diagnosed with an advanced stage of breast cancer at age 36 and underwent chemotherapy. Her sister Grace developed pre-cancerous cells in her breasts at age 36 and had a mastectomy.

Doctors told Talusan she had an 87 percent chance of developing breast cancer. But she held off on making a decision until seeing her sisters' struggles and discovering benign lumps in her own breasts.

"It's part denial. You don't want to admit you've got a ticking time bomb for a body. But the mom in me said, ‘Get the mastectomy,'" said Talusan, who has a 7-year-old, a 4-year-old and an 18-month old with her husband Jorge Vega.

"Honestly, I am freaked out. I'm anxious. I'm crying. There are a lot of fears. Right now, the fear is about the actual surgery-you go to sleep hoping and praying that you wake up," she said.

"After that, honestly, to say it sounds so superficial, but I'm terrified of looking at my breasts the first time. I'm worried about what the scars will look like. Not in a sexual way, but in a ‘whoa, this is what my body's going to look like' kind of way," she said.

Her husband, Jorge, "has been great," she said. "He gives me the space to cry. He doesn't tell me to knock it off; stop whining.

"I'm lucky. I've met women who husbands have said, ‘Don't do it; you're going to look weird,' who placed such huge priority on their wives breasts," Talusan said. "My husband said, ‘I love you however you look; I'd rather have you alive than dead.'"

Last winter, Talusan decided if she had the strength to put herself under a knife, she had the strength to run a marathon, too.

Thus far, she's run two half marathons, a 5K and a 10K as a personal challenge and went public about her mastectomy through her blog, "Marathon B4 Mastectomy."

"I feel like the most positive thing to come out of all of this is how people have been inspired" reading the blog, she said.

"A lot of people write to me saying I inspired them to get in shape. Or I hear from women who are BRCA-1 positive, and had a mastectomy and had never talked to another woman about it ever.

"The other great thing to come out of this is the bowling," she said.

Talusan's friend and colleague, Anne Mattina, a communications professor, organized "Bowling for Liza" on Nov. 11 at the Westgate Lanes in Brockton.

The Stonehill Community came together to raise more than $1,800 to hire household help for Liza and her family after her surgery. Seventeen lanes were filled with more than 80 bowlers and Talusan supporters, some of them consisting of Stonehill faculty, students and sports teams.

"To be in that bowling alley, and see professors bowling against student affairs staff; athletes, administrative people- it was awesome," Talusan said. "You see some folks who are all business dressed in wacky bowling shirts, it was just amazing. It was a great opportunity to bring people together in the midst of something crappy."

The night before her surgery, it was the Stonehill community she found comfort in as she attended the men's and women's basketball games against Franklin Pierce.

Since her surgery, a number of Stonehill students have gone to Talusan's house to help her husband Jorge with yard work.

This is not Talusan's first time being "lifted up" by the Stonehill Community in a time of need.

In 2005, her now 7-year-old daughter, Joli, underwent chemotherapy for the eye cancer retinoblastoma.

She wrote: "In 2005, I first experienced the great love and support of the Stonehill Community. Through prayers and participation in a Christmas fundraiser, members of the Stonehill Community kept my family from crumbling...

"I believe it is a rare gift to be surrounded by friends, colleagues and community members who are so willing to lift up others in the time of need. It is an even rarer gift to be lifted up twice."

Although the mastectomy will significantly decrease Talusan's chances of developing breast cancer, her cancer risk is still high. Before she turns 40, Talusan plans on getting an oophorectomy, a surgery that will remove her ovaries and reduce her chances of ovarian cancer.

Her older children understand, in their own ways, what's happening to mommy.

"My older one is a cancer survivor. She gets it. She's been in and out of hospitals her whole life. She's just scared I'll be in pain," Talusan said.

"I think my four-year-old, Jada, thinks that this is normal. She has seen her aunts go through this. I believe she thinks ‘Oh when you're a lady, you're supposed to remove your breasts.'"

Follow Liza's blog, "Marathon B4 Mastectomy," at http://marathonb4mastectomy.wordpress.com/

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