Breast cancer survivor takes a bold stand, paves path for new sensation-sparing surgery

Dr. Delaney with his patient
After Bussey made a strong case for what she wanted, Dr. Kevin Delaney agreed to perform an innovative procedure he had never done before in order to preserve her breast sensation moving forward. Photo by Dawn Brazell

When entrepreneur and accessories designer Suzette Bussey, 43, chose her theme Be Bold for the year, she had no idea just how much that would play out in her life. When diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2020, the themedeepened. Bussey found out that not only did she have the BRCA1 gene mutation but that she also had triple negative breast cancer.

Neither was good news.

It challenged her to have faith in herself, that she could get through the treatment and have the courage she needed not just to survive but also thrive, despite the fear she felt.

“I realized I had to be bold to believe that I will be cancer free, and I could get through all of these things.”

The good news was that the cancer seemed not to have spread, and her doctors, including oncologist Young Lee, M.D., surgical oncologist Mark Lockett, M.D., reconstructive surgeon Kevin Delaney, M.D., and gynecologist, Gweneth Lazenby, M.D., developed a treatment plan for her.

She was facing a mastectomy and oophorectomy, a procedure to remove her ovaries, given her BRCA1 mutation.

One night, when Bussey scrolled through the news feed on her phone, she ran across a story about a woman who was able to preserve breast sensation following reconstruction from a mastectomy. The article featured San Francisco surgeon, Anne Peled, M.D., who had been doing an innovative procedure to spare the nipples and retain sensation for women having reconstructive surgery after breast cancer.

Excited, she contacted her doctors, Lockett and Delaney. They weren’t doing the procedure at the time, and with COVID-19 and insurance restrictions, it would be hard for her to go to San Francisco. She made the pitch to Delaney to see if he’d check it out. Delaney reached out to Peled.

After much discussion, Delaney decided he was willing to do it if Bussey wanted it. “I told her straight up, ‘So, I’ve never done this. I work with nerves all the time, but I’ve never done this particular surgery.’”

Bussey said she trusted him, given his reputation and the excellent care she had received. “I realized if I was going to survive, then I wanted my quality of life to be as close to normal as possible. That was very important to me. I felt they listened to me, and we had  several conversations. In the end, they were willing to do it because it wasn’t going to affect the health outcomes.”Her treatment had to be done in stages. First, Lockett scheduled a lumpectomy to remove the cancer.

Because she responded well to her rounds of chemotherapy, her doctors found that she had a complete pathologic response, which means there were no active cancer cells growing anywhere.Then Lockett and Delaney prepared to do the new procedure.

The doctors worked in tandem, with Delaney handling the nerve grafting and placing tissue expanders for a later surgery to insert implants.

Delaney said the procedure went well, and he appreciated that she advocated for her cause, noting he wouldn’t have agreed if he thought it would affect her cancer outcome. It will take a year for Bussey to know how much sensation will return.

“I told them how important it was to me and how I wanted to be able to feel a hug and to feel like a woman. They were willing to take into account quality-of-life issues,” said Bussey. “For them to consider this in the treatment plan was incredible.”