A revelation and self-transformation while preparing for breast cancer surgery

Aug. 19, 2021
Laurel Komarny and her husband are photographed at the top of Quandary Peak.
After a breast cancer diagnosis, Laurel Komarny of Colorado Springs rebuilt her life with help from a book and physicians at UCHealth. She and her husband, Phil, climbed to the top of Quandary Peak – a goal she visualized. Photo courtesy Laurel Komarny.

Speaking metaphorically, the advice Laurel Komarny received from a friend who is a therapist was rather unorthodox: Bury the old version of yourself.

The day she got that guidance, Komarny was in a strange place mentally. That day, she learned she had breast cancer and like so many who have been told such a thing, her mind got away from her. Komarny thought of her father, who died of cancer, and a dear friend who died, too, a single mom with two children. Komarny had driven her friend to chemotherapy appointments many times for treatment of breast cancer.

The news of breast cancer shook her hard. Komarny had always thought of herself as healthy; she played pickleball and climbed mountains with her beloved husband, even though she never could quite reach the summit of Quandary Peak without experiencing vertigo. When she peeled back the layers of her life at the age of 49, she realized her habits may not have been entirely healthy.

“In my 20s and 30s, I was a salad girl. Once I hit 40, ‘Oh, I can have the fries, have dessert, have the queso, have the margarita — it was never-ending. I could make up an excuse to treat myself to anything,’’ Laurel said. She loved caffeinated and sugary drinks from Starbucks, and enjoyed wine daily.

On the day she found out she had cancer, she told her friend the therapist: “I’m never going to drink again.’’

Her friend believed her and talked to Komarny about ceremoniously saying goodbye to the old version of herself and hello to a new version.

“She had a good run,’’ her friend said of the old version. “It’s time to put her to rest.’’

Laurel Komarny and her husband reach the summit of Mount Princeton.
On her 50th birthday, Laurel Komarny hiked with her husband, Phil, to the top of Mount Princeton. Her husband gave her a beautiful ring to celebrate the milestone. Photo courtesy Laurel Komarny.

It didn’t happen overnight, but slowly and methodically, Komarny embarked on a journey to reinvent herself. Meditating, thinking positively and eating healthy – fruits, vegetables and whole grains – became a way of life. She found her way to Dr. Laura Pomerenke, a UCHealth breast surgeon. Together with Dr. Nancy Wong, a UCHealth plastic surgeon, they embraced a plan for Pomerenke to remove the lump in her breast and for Wong to remove Komarny’s breast implants and do a breast lift. If the results of the surgery were favorable, Komarny would need radiation treatment and a prescription for tamoxifen.

Before any of that happened, though, Pomerenke asked her to read a book: Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster by Peggy Huddleston. The words on those pages changed Komarny’s life.

“I ended up corresponding with the author because it was a life-changing book for me,’’ Komarny said. “It kind of taught you about how to mentally prepare, how to meditate and how to prepare your little circle of support, and how to get through everything. I spent a lot of that time preparing.’’

Was it hard to learn how to meditate?

“It really was,’’ she said. “But the book that Dr. Pomerenke recommended had these meditations that you were supposed to listen to every day, twice a day, to prepare for your surgery. It started with a guided meditation, and then after surgery, I started to find apps online to do guided meditation and it took me through that process and then I learned how to do it myself.’’

Newly retired from a recruiting job in higher education, Komarny did not set a time each day to meditate. She’d spent years on a clock, on someone else’s watch, and didn’t want the structure of a scheduled time to meditate. She does it organically at any time.

“For me, the biggest misconception that I always had around meditation is that you’re going to quiet your mind and not think about things when, actually, you allow yourself to think through everything. So once I understood that and allowed myself to go through that and think everything through.’’

In daily meditations, she focused on a successful surgery, healing quickly and getting back to playing pickleball, hiking and yoga. She meditated about reaching the top of Quandary Peak and imagined that one month after surgery, she’d be doing extraordinarily well.

Laurel Komarny climbs a mountain in Colorado.
Laurel Komarny changed her diet and her lifestyle after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Hiking more became part of her routine. Photo courtesy Laurel Komarny.

“I talked with Dr. Pomerenke about how you can hear even when you are under anesthesia during surgery. The book taught me to come prepared with thoughts about what I wanted the surgeon to say while I was under. I talked to Dr. Pomerenke and she was happy to do that. I gave her a notecard that was about my feelings and everything that I had been meditating around, especially that I would heal quickly and that everything would be positive,’’ Komarny said.

Right before going under anesthesia, Komarny’s heart rate was 62.

“Are you an athlete?’’ the physician asked. Komarny laughed. She was so at ease going into surgery and she believed in the power of her thoughts. She knew the surgery would go well.

“It just really worked for me,’’ she said.

Pomerenke performed the lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor, and Wong removed implants and did a breast lift.

“She did a beautiful job, and I have, what I didn’t even remember these perky 16-year-old breasts. And I wonder, why did I ever get those stupid implants? I should have just gotten a lift,’’ she said.

The surgery was painful and recovery was no picnic. But at her one-month checkup, she was cleared to go back to her daily activities and pickleball.

“I literally visualized them being like ‘Wow, I can’t believe it,’ and that’s exactly how it happened.’’

Komarny knows how fortunate she is. Through her journey, memories of the friend who died from breast cancer were ever-present.

A couple reaches the summit of one of Colorado's 14ers.
Laurel Komarny and her husband, Phil, enjoy Colorado’s great outdoors. Photo courtesy of Laurel Komarny.

“I was there first-hand to see her struggles. She was a single mother of a teenage son and a young son. Her ex-husband was of no help … She had a stressful job and was the sole provider for her children. When this happened to me, I thought of her often and had such a deeper understanding of her struggles.’’

Komarny knows not everyone has the freedom to quit a job and spend their days eating a clean diet, hiking mountains and doing yoga. Not everyone’s kids are grown and out of the house with the luxury of working full time on their own well-being.

“I live in deep gratitude daily,’’ she said.

Dr. Pomerenke is thrilled to see Komarny doing so well.

“It is the most gratifying thing to see someone come through their treatment and not only return to baseline but thrive,’’ Pomerenke said. “I would certainly love to have all of my patients do Peggy Huddleston’s program because I think it is so important to go into treatment with a good attitude and coping skills.’’

Pomerenke said the implants had nothing to do with Komarny getting cancer but they may have helped make the tumor easier to feel, perhaps contributing to an early diagnosis.

Wong explained that when breast implants are placed, the normal process is that the body starts to form scar tissue all around it, creating a scar pocket called a breast capsule. The implant sits in the capsule, walled off from the rest of the body.

“Laurel initially had issues with capsule contracture, a condition where that scar tissue starts to tighten and squeeze down on the implant, causing firmness, shifting, pain. Sometimes, they can even calcify like thin bone,’’ Wong said.

Dr. Laura Pomerenke
Dr. Laura Pomerenke

“To remove breast implants, you access the capsule pocket and remove the implant. But in Laurel’s case, the capsule was also contracted, so the unhealthy scar tissue was carefully dissected off of the surrounding tissue and removed, leaving only healthy tissue behind,’’ Wong said.

In her 30 years as a breast surgeon, Pomerenke has seen patients blossom and change their lives after a breast cancer diagnosis.

Wong said that seeing such a wonderful outcome makes “the tougher days and cases at work all worthwhile.

“Laurel has such mental and emotional strength. She not only beat cancer but also used the obstacle to better her life, health and well-being.’’

For Komarny, from the beginning, even the discovery of the tumor above her nipple seemed as though it had been choreographed by the gods of good fortune. By happenstance, Komarny accompanied a friend who had an appointment with another plastic surgeon in Colorado Springs to have her implants removed. While there, Komarny talked with the physician and mentioned she wanted her implants out too. The physician did a quick exam – something he normally would not have done in such a casual, unscheduled consultation.

“What’s this?’’ he asked after detecting a lump near her nipple. “I’m sure it is nothing but I would definitely get it checked sooner than later.’’

A mammogram and biopsy followed, which led to the diagnosis and surgery and ultimately, a ceremonious burial of her former self.

She eats only whole food now – no processed food, no caffeine, no sugar. Her diet is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, water and herbal teas. She has lost 35 pounds and after her husband adopted the same lifestyle, he also lost more than 30 pounds.

A photo of Dr. Nancy Wong
Dr. Nancy Wong

“I run into people and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. You look like you are 30 again.’ It’s been the silver lining of all of this. I reverse-aged myself. … The chronic sciatica that I had prior to cancer – I had a history of having to get shots in my back – all of that is gone.’’

Since her surgery, Komarny has climbed three 14ers. The first one – Quandary Peak. In the past, when near the summit, vertigo overwhelmed her and it felt as though the world was going to fall out from under her. She always had to turn back. This time, she reached the top, just as she had visualized she would. She snapped a picture and later sent it to Dr. Pomerenke.

On her 50th birthday in late July, Komarny climbed Mt. Princeton and she and her husband, Phil, have also reached the summit of Mt. Yale.

“The thing about it is the challenges that you experience on each and every hike, but once you are at the top it is so beautiful — you just have this feeling of accomplishment.’’

In October, the new version of Laurel Komarny will have a six-month post-surgery check-up with Dr. Pomerenke. There will be a medical exam, of course, and plenty of talk about a grateful journey.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.