Dr. Lauren Schnaper is the Director of the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Comprehensive Breast Care Center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC). She is internationally recognized for her clinical research on breast cancer in the elderly and her basic science research involving tumor markers in breast cancer. Dr. Schnaper was one of the first women trained as a general surgeon in Baltimore and has been honored throughout her career by numerous community groups and national associations.
Through the intimate stories of several breast cancer patients and their surgeons, The Good Breast explores the cultural roots of the loss of the breast. Unprecedented OR footage presents medicine as a ritual, and the mastectomy as a modern form of breast sacrifice.
The film features real and intimately portrayed doctor and patient encounters which reveal the often opposing desires for individual breast cancer treatment. Each character undergoes a different medical and personal experience with the loss of her breast and its reconstruction.
The no nonsense breast surgeon Lauren Schnaper struggles with her patients’ emotional decision to rid themselves of their breasts immediately after a diagnosis with breast cancer. Debunking the cancer myth of early detection she warns her patients that “a mastectomy does not save your life,” and expresses her candid views of the “breast cancer awareness movement” which makes women fearful rather than educated about breast cancer.
For the gentle plastic surgeon and partner of Dr. Schnaper’s for many years, Dr. Sheri Slezak, the breast is a very subjective organ, and it’s as much a part of the treatment as the cancer itself. While she wants to prevent her patients from going for the “gold” instead of the “silver medal,” she cannot stop Doris's desire for a Full C.
Dr. Sheri Slezak is the chief of plastic surgery at the University of Maryland. She attended Harvard Medical School and did her general surgery training at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. She then completed a plastic surgery fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Slezak is board certified and is an officer of the American Board of Plastic Surgery. She is active in resident training and has authored an educational curriculum for plastic surgery.
Doris Doyle, a vibrant, self-described “girly girl” is in remission from breast cancer and wants to replace her breasts with fake ones because “the real ones tried to kill me." Doris’s journey is fraught with various complications reconstructing her breasts — the emergency implant removal due to an infection, and a DIEP flap that dies. But we see her strive to regain her sense of attractiveness through the care of the plastic surgeon and Latissimus Dorsi specialist, Dr. Steven Bonawitz, who miraculously restores her breasts.
Carol McGinnis, a self-declared amazon warrior, chooses to have a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction, because despite her fortitude, she never wants to go through chemotherapy or have mammograms anymore. Carol gives the anger that her diagnosis produces a positive spin and presents it at a family gathering. While Carol’s reconstruction also faces some obstacles such as a severe inflammation of the skin, she says “I am not my breasts,” and is able to come to terms with her own illness and her mother’s breast cancer — an experience that she had struggled with her whole life.
Shelia Westry finds a renewed faith and relationship with God through her battle with advanced breast cancer. Effusively warm, Shelia lights up every room she’s in—at her last radiation treatment, when she rings the celebratory bell, the whole waiting room cheers for her. Shelia wants to remind people that it is okay to be seen fighting the illness, and assures her doctors, nurses, and fellow patients over and over that “whatever happens, God got me.” As the doctors prepare for their trip to Catania to take part in the festival of the patron saint of breast diseases, Agatha, Shelia’s unbreakable faith makes her into a modern Saint and martyr.
Debra Nelson is having a really hard time coming to terms with the new information regarding her treatment for DCIS, a non-invasive breast cancer. Did she need her mastectomy? Perhaps not if she had been diagnosed today. Debra calls into question her identity as a cancer survivor while still living with the loss of her breast—a constant reminder of what might not have been.
Breast Cancer Treatment
The Good Breast explores medicine as ritual, presenting the rise of the mastectomy in the U.S. as a modern form of breast sacrifice. Unlike all other surgical trends towards less invasive surgery (robotic, endoscopic etc.), prophylactic mastectomy rates have increased over the last decade. Mastectomies don’t guarantee survival benefits per se (except for genetic mutation carriers), as renowned breast cancer surgeon Dr. Lauren Schnaper states in The Good Breast. Among the main reasons for mastectomies are patient concern about recurrence, increased screenings (mammograms and MRIs), and the desire for symmetry and/or the right and often bigger breast size. An overall fear of breast cancer, misguidance, and pink ribbon culture are also fueling this alarming rate of unnecessary mastectomies in America. Their “necessity” lies outside of the realm of statistics and calculable medicine, and within the realm of personalized medical choices.
The Myth of Saint Agatha
Agatha, who died in Catania, Sicily in 251 AD, is the patron saint of Catania and also venerated as the patron saint of breast diseases because she sacrificed her breast in her famous martyrdom by the hands of Roman governor Quinziano and his sodiers. The Good Breast surgeons Dr. Lauren Schnaper and Dr. Sheri Slezak travel to Catania for the Festival to witness this unique expression of devotion to the breast. The Agatha myth has been told and practiced by the people of Catania for thousands of years — the subject of Bernadette Wegenstein’s next documentary, Devoti tutti (We are all devoted).