A future reshaped by compassionate care

Karen Conroy is no stranger to cancer. “The word ‘cancer’ doesn’t really scare me, because I’ve been around it all my life,” she says. “From my mom to grandmother to my great-grandmother to all my aunts and my sister, they’ve all either been diagnosed or passed away due to breast cancer or ovarian cancer.”
“I was thirteen when my mom was first diagnosed with throat cancer. I thought it was just normal to go down to the Cancer Center to get treatment,” she adds.

In 2020, that family history led her to pursue preventative screenings, which revealed that the hardworking mother of three carried the cancer gene. With the knowledge that her chances of contracting both breast and ovarian cancer were very high, a follow-up exam revealed a cancerous breast tumor and findings in her ovaries in January of 2021.
Karen’s ever-vigilant mindset made her next stop the St. Clair Hospital Breast Care Center. “It wasn’t like walking into a doctor’s office and they’re just going to tell you what kind of cancer you have,” recalls Karen. “It was meeting a group of women that were so compassionate and friendly and warm.”

“When I met with Karen,” says Tara L. Grahovac, M.D., a breast surgeon with St. Clair Medical Group, “there was the surgical decision-making process, but her case also involved genetic counseling. And that was in large part why, even though this was a very small, early-detected breast cancer—one that might normally have called for a lumpectomy—we customized her plan to her specific genetics that put her at a high risk for getting a second, unrelated breast cancer in the future.”

In March, Karen had a hysterectomy, followed seven days later by a double mastectomy performed by Dr. Grahovac—with reconstruction immediately thereafter performed by Edward J. Ruane, Jr., M.D., plastic and reconstructive surgeon with St. Clair Medical Group. “Both breasts were removed,” says Dr. Grahovac, “in what’s called a skin-sparing mastectomy—saving all the skin so Dr. Ruane could use it for the reconstruction.”

The team’s integrated, innovative approach meant that Dr. Ruane could begin Karen’s reconstruction right after Dr. Grahovac set them all up for success. Dr. Ruane used a two-stage approach to the reconstruction.

“First, we placed a balloon-type device called a tissue expander, which gives the patient more control over the exact size and shape they want. Then, about three months later, Karen had a minor outpatient procedure to place her permanent silicone implants,” Dr. Ruane says. As with every breast cancer case, Karen’s two surgeons had distinct and equally critical roles. “My job is to give them the best possible outcome from their cancer diagnosis,” says Dr. Grahovac. “Dr. Ruane is all about, ‘We’re going to take care of your cancer—that’s a given—so now how would you like to look at the end of this? What’s your goal?’ Then he further customizes the reconstruction to achieve each patient’s wishes regarding their preferred look and feel.” “Just know you’re in such great hands… I’ve had amazing support with the doctors, the nurses, and everybody that’s touched my life through this… I’m blessed.”

Customization, in fact, is a theme at St. Clair Health, which offers a full range of surgical and reconstructive options, including tissue-based and implant-based reconstruction; breast conservation when appropriate, with or without plastic surgery; and, if necessary or preferred by the patient, mastectomies completed without reconstruction or with different versions of reconstruction.

“Dr. Ruane initially took scans and pictures of me, then graphed on my body what I’d look like,” recalls Karen. “I didn’t want to look like I’d had an implant. I wanted to look very natural. So I tell people that he paints you like a canvas…as he’s drawing and showing you what you’re going to look like, he has that paintbrush in his hand and he can tweak you and make you look the way you want to look. It’s pretty incredible how they can give you the shape you want.” “We provide all of the most modern techniques,” adds Dr. Ruane, “with the breast oncologic surgeon and plastic surgeon working closely together for patients undergoing mastectomy or lumpectomy. We offer patients the cancer care they deserve, along with the best possible cosmetic outcome.”
Karen’s successful outcome is a great example of St. Clair’s relentless effort to look at the whole patient across their cancer journey—uniting skilled surgeons and modern techniques with the patient’s resiliency.

“My husband Brian is my rock,” says Karen. “I call him Superman, because he does everything. He’s helped me throughout the journey. When they told me I had cancer, I didn’t crawl in a hole. I didn’t get depressed. It was, ‘Let’s go do what we have to do. Do whatever you have to do to get the cancer out of me.’ I knew with Brian’s support, with my positive attitude, and these amazing doctors, it would be okay. They walked me through every step of what I was going to experience, how I was going to deal with it afterwards, and how they would manage my pain. They were very detailed about how they were going to get me from Point A to Point B. Every time I had a question, when I would email or call them, they would call me right back within minutes. They were never too busy to talk to me. I’ll be a lifelong patient going to see the fantastic team at St. Clair.”

Dr. Ruane specializes in all aspects of plastic surgery, ranging from reconstructive to cosmetic. He earned his medical degree at Duke University School of Medicine and completed a residency in Plastic Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he served as Administrative Chief Resident in the Department of Plastic Surgery. Dr. Ruane was named to the 2021 list of America’s Best Plastic Surgeons by Newsweek. Along with Dr. Robert W. Bragdon, Dr. Ruane practices with St. Clair Medical Group. To contact Dr. Ruane, please call 412.572.6164.