You’ve heard the expression, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ Two-time breast cancer patient Terri Coutee took that advice one step further and made sure she not only made the lemonade, she shared it with others.
Terri received her first diagnosis in 2002. Treatment at MD Anderson in Houston included two lumpectomies on her left breast, 18 weeks of intensive chemotherapy that landed her in the hospital, and six weeks of daily radiation. Once treatment was complete and Terri felt better, she returned to teaching and started her Masters of Education studies. In 2014 she was sidelined again with a recurrence in her left breast and a new diagnosis in her right.
She and her breast surgeon decided on a double mastectomy. “While completing my M.Ed. requirements for the semester, including finals, and recovering from a double mastectomy, I began to research a plastic surgeon (microsurgeon) to perform my DIEP.”
In the DIEP Flap procedure, no muscles are sacrificed, no implants are used and reconstruction feels “natural” in both feel and appearance. “Once the DIEP procedure was over I thought about
writing a blog to educate others because I had to spend so much time to find a “just right” surgeon who was highly qualified to do my breast reconstruction,” she said. “I simply couldn’t imagine what others must be going through. I wanted so badly to help and I knew there were those who didn’t have the time or resources I did to share this information.”
She calls her blog a labor of love. “Every day I’m inspired by the thousands of women and men who walk this journey together,” said Terri, who set up a Facebook group in 2015. The blog and the Facebook group became the inspiration for the DiepCfoundation, a not-for-profit organization that provides options and resources for mastectomy patients.
Starting a foundation didn’t come without its challenges. “I was a writer and now had to be a business woman and run a nonprofit,” said Terri, who also started a YouTube channel. “I had to establish credibility before supporters knew I would stick around and that I meant business. “Of course, dealing with some difficult stories from members can be challenging, but I try to keep my emotions in check so I can get them the help they need.”
However, she also felt warmth from the microsurgeons and plastic surgeons after she attended her first medical conference. “After I gained their trust, it was like a new family to me,” she said. In 2018, Coutee was awarded the American Society of Plastic Surgeons Patient of Courage.
To those who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer, Coutee offers this advice. “It can take a lot of effort but make sure you have a coordinated care team working together and talking — oncologist, radiologist, surgeons, physical therapist,” she said. “Also, take a deep breath. Cancer is often an emotional emergency and not so much a medical emergency. Most women and men have time to do a bit of research.”
She also suggests a mental clearance sale. “Say, ‘everything must go!” and take a break from reading, researching and talking about breast cancer and surgery.”
For more information on the DiepCfoundation, visit https://www.diepcfoundation.org/.