Breast cancer

Seeking a second opinion paid off for Melissa

Melissa Stucky smiling.
Melissa Stucky

For some patients, asking for a second opinion may be easier in theory than in practice, especially for those diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

In late 2018, Melissa Stucky of Rockton, Illinois was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34 after finding a lump on her right side. Married with a two-year-old daughter at home and her career as an elementary school speech and language pathologist paused because of her compromised immune system, Melissa’s cancer fight soon extended to her health insurance provider.

Like many breast cancer patients, especially younger women, Melissa wanted both breasts surgically removed for maximum peace of mind. Her doctors agreed that a double mastectomy was medically appropriate, but her insurance company would only cover the cost of a single mastectomy of her cancerous breast.

“My doctors submitted the double mastectomy to insurance 9 times, all of which were denied,” Melissa says. “They said I didn’t need a double because I didn’t have a family history of breast cancer or have the gene mutation that increases risk. Initially, I went ahead with the single mastectomy and initial reconstruction, which were done at the hospital affiliated with my insurance company. I wanted the cancer out right away and that was my only option at the time. I also had chemotherapy and radiation done at the same hospital.”

After hearing great things about UW Health Northern Illinois (formerly SwedishAmerican) from other women in the Rockford area, Melissa became convinced that a second opinion might be the path to a double mastectomy. Doing this meant buying a second health insurance policy through the marketplace, an option available to her thanks to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

Dr. Lacey Stelle, a breast cancer surgeon who directs UW Health’s Rockford-based breast cancer program, was incredibly helpful.

Double mastectomy was totally appropriate

“Melissa wasn’t asking for anything unusual by seeking a double mastectomy, especially for such a young woman,” says Dr. Stelle. “Fortunately, her new insurance plan approved it and Melissa had the surgery in May 2021. During my part of the operation, we removed Melissa’s non-cancerous breast and then my UW Health colleague, Dr. Samuel Poore from Plastic Surgery, took over and reconstructed both breasts.”

(Melissa’s surgery was done in Madison, however patients who live closer to Rockford can now have breast reconstruction performed there by Dr. Katharine Shaum, a UW Health-trained plastic surgeon who specializes in breast work.)

“Operating on patients who had surgery and/or radiation in the past can be trickier because radiated tissue can become harder and tighter,” says Dr. Poore. “It’s more complicated to work with implants on these patients during reconstruction. Accordingly, we took a bit of muscle and skin from her back and moved it to her chest to produce the most natural outcome on the side where she had been radiated.”

Breast reconstruction is typically completed with two follow-up surgeries, which Melissa had in July and November of 2021. Her follow-up visits with UW Health medical oncology in Rockford continue every six months.

Melissa is more than pleased not only with the cosmetic outcome but also the high level of support and communication she received from the UW Health team.

“When UW Health temporarily stopped doing elective surgeries during the late 2020/early 2021 COVID surge, Dr. Stelle and Dr. Poore communicated with me regularly, letting me know my surgery was a priority,” Melissa says. “I could tell they were working hard to get insurance to approve it and then to schedule the operation as soon as possible.”

Advanced breast cancer care now available in Rockford

Melissa’s case also illustrates why UW Health’s elevated level of breast cancer care may be a superior option for women from Northern Illinois.

With both Dr. Stelle and Dr. Shaum working closely together to serve Northern Illinois patients, UW Health’s Northern Illinois breast cancer program is now accredited by the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC), a designation from the American College of Surgeons that signifies the highest level of breast cancer care. In highly complex cases, women can be seen at the UW Carbone Cancer Center in Madison — the only cancer center in Wisconsin designated as “comprehensive” by the National Cancer Institute.

Reflecting on her own experience, Melissa is glad that her quest for a second opinion led to her to UW Health.

“Sometimes patients worry about offending their provider by seeking a second opinion, but it’s your life,” Melissa says. “You should never be afraid to ask for it. During each of my UW Health stays, everyone was incredibly comforting, explained everything in detail and answered all my questions,” she says. “From the doctors and nurses to the people who draw your blood or clean your room, there was nothing but kindness and respect. Everything was wonderful and I’m very happy how it turned out.”

Second opinions are available to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. Regardless of where a patient ultimately seeks treatment, a second opinion offers peace of mind through confirmation of the original diagnosis and a full understanding of all treatment options when faced with a life-threatening diagnosis.