Plan of Attack

By Kristy Eckert
Photos by Will Shilling

One Woman’s Journey

They’ve pleasured her husband—the college sweetheart who, 20 years later, still holds her hand on the couch. They’ve nourished her babies, the ballerina who worships her and the Lego-loving boy who showers her with sweet kisses. They’ve filled out the bathing suits she dons all summer long at her family’s Indiana lake house, where she lounges beside her sister, sips iced tea and reads.

But Tonya Dixon’s breasts are trying to kill her. She’s sure of it.

So here the Columbus elementary school teacher lies, at 40 years old and in perfect health, with her body drugged and her arms outstretched on an operating table, voluntarily having the doctor cut off her breasts.    

One of the nation’s foremost cancer specialists hovers over her in this cold surgery room at The James hospital, his six-member team quiet, his fingers nimble, his gaze intense. He knows this body before him does not have cancer. But he also knows it’s filled with mutated genes poised to morph into the deadly disease. The chances they will in these breasts? Between 50 and 85 percent, studies show. And Tonya—who could not talk this through with her mother, since cancer snatched her long ago—does not want to play the odds. 

So Dr. William Farrar slices into Tonya’s right breast, cutting and cauterizing, cutting and cauterizing. He gently tugs at the breast as he goes, peeling it back to cut out tissue. Smoke swirls from inside, and burning skin scents the room. Farrar is serious and focused, saving as much skin as he can so the plastic surgeon walking in immediately after him has ample opportunity to work his magic.

He makes one final tug, and the right side of Tonya’s chest becomes a crater.

Just 35 minutes after it first was punctured, there it sits, on a table at the side of the room: Tonya’s double-D breast in a small white bucket. It is a 2.26-pound lump with a strip of skin and nipple on top. It is no longer gently moving up and down with Tonya’s every breath. It is dead.

The surgical team swiftly transitions, as if keeping time with a silent orchestra. The doctor moves to the other side of the table. He cuts and dabs, cuts and dabs.

Finally, Farrar pulls the last portion of tissue away from its home on the left side of Tonya’s chest and moves the 1.87-pound clump into a second plastic container.

In exactly one hour, Tonya’s breasts are gone.

Potential killers, be damned.