On April 11, 29-year-old Murphy, who competed on Sean Lowes’ season 17 of the ABC reality dating series, underwent the intense surgery after she “tested positive for the BRCA 2 gene mutation which greatly increases” her chance of developing breast cancer.
With a family history of cancer — her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2014 — Murphy didn’t want to take any chances on the possibility of being diagnosed later in life.
Opening up a week after the invasive operation, which was performed at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, Arkansas, the full-time travel blogger tells PEOPLE about making her decision to go under the knife: “I don’t really want to be sitting on these potentially cancerous cells. Like, why hang on to something that is a ticking time bomb?”
PEOPLE: Your story seems to have touched so many people.
Lesley Murphy: I had no clue how many stories would come out from people my age and so many who are younger — like 22, 23 or 24 — who have already gone through this. Some even with cancer. It’s just so eye-opening. I just was not expecting that.
Can you share the timeline of your story?
Three years ago almost to the day, I think it was somewhere around March 10, 2014, my mom found a lump and got tested for the gene and she tested positive, which was crazy because she had seen nothing on her side of the family. She didn’t have a family history of breast cancer. She always exercised and ate really well, and so she just wasn’t a good candidate to have this gene or to be diagnosed with cancer. Everybody was really super shocked. So that happened three years ago and since then, she’s wanted all three of us — I have two sisters — to get tested for the gene and my younger sister tested negative, my older sister tested positive. I was the third person and the final person to get tested and everybody was hopeful it would be negative but it came back positive — I guess that was around mid-February of this year.
It took me so long to get tested because I’m all over the place all the time traveling, working with different travel companies, and so I just was never in town long enough to do that I guess. I probably could have prioritized it, but there was no urgency in my mind. At the time I was 26 and I was like Oh, that just won’t happen to me. It wasn’t until February, I was home for a couple weeks and my mom said, “You should do this test.” I got a call mid-February from my geneticist counselor saying it was positive. That was February and during that call, we set up a time to come in to talk to the doctors because obviously I had questions. I had a month full of travel during March, and so we set that call up for April 4 and then the next day, I was like ‘I’m not comfortable with that. I have a month and a half until I get to sit down with somebody and talk to somebody about this.’ So I called the geneticist counselor back and said “Do you have anything next week?” At the time, I wasn’t going to be back in Arkansas, but I was like “Do you have anything next week? I can fly back.” … She was like “Funny enough, I just had a cancellation. Can you come in next Wednesday?”
It was pretty crazy how that happened. This is a week later — this is still kind of around mid-February. We got the ball in motion during that very first sit-down with the doctor. I was just kind of like, You know, I don’t really want to be sitting on these potentially cancerous cells. Like, why hang on to something that is a ticking time bomb? And so at that point, I walked out and we pretty much had a surgery date of April 11 at that point. It all happened really fast and I didn’t even mean for it to happen so quickly. I just knew that March was jam-packed with travel and April I didn’t have anything that I absolutely had to be doing. And I just wanted to get it taken care of and get it out of my system. So April 11 it was.
Here we are about nine days post-surgery and the doctors just sent me — they took pictures and videos in the operating room — and I just literally just watched them … and it’s so crazy how I can be here talking on the phone with you feeling great after seeing exactly what they did. The human body is so amazing. Totally a piece of art.
Was there any point that you were contemplating saying no or that you were hesitant?
It was a no hesitation thing. I was on my way to Dallas, I was in the car when I got the call from my geneticist that I got I had tested positive for the gene mutation and I was actually heading from Arkansas to Dallas to my gynecologist appointment — just an annual exam. I was pretty glad about that because in a couple hours form that point, I would be sitting down with a gynecologist who was a great family friend and could answer a ton of those questions before I sat down with anybody after that. So she actually kind of got the ball rolling in my mind. She’s the one who said, “If it were me, I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting on something that’s maybe going to become cancer tomorrow.” And I said, “Wow, you are right. I don’t want to do that either. It’s a ticking time bomb.”
Would cancer probably come up tomorrow or the next day? No, probably not. But after reading all of these girls’ stories on my Instagram or emails or direct messages, it is insane how many people get cancer at 20-somethig. Even the young aren’t safe. I feel like now I was being ignorant for thinking I was 26 at the time that my mom got breast cancer and that that just wouldn’t happen to me. It’s fair game for anybody to be diagnosed with cancer these days. I don’t know if more people are getting cancer or if more people are just openly talking about it. But it seems like it’s fair game for anybody.
Was your family supportive of the decision and how did your mom respond to it?
My whole family was super supportive. Everybody was scared in the beginning, but everybody in my family has watched and has seen my mom go through it three years prior, so everybody kind of knew what to expect. And the good thing about it was that I was never diagnosed with cancer. That’s the difference between she and I. I wasn’t ever diagnosed with cancer. But knowing that we have a big family history of it, because it runs in my dad’s side too, everybody was gung-ho for me doing. And my older sister will do the same thing when she’s finished having kids. So everybody was totally on-board.
Have you heard from any Bachelor alum since your surgery?
Yes! I have. Catherine [Giudici] was so sweet and sent me a care package with these two pink pillows in them. It was such a thoughtful gift. It was more functional than anything, which is what I needed. They definitely were because when I’m propped up on so many pillows in bed, I can only sleep on my back, so my arms kind of either have nowhere to go or my elbows are baring all of the weight. So these pink pillows are kind of there to support my arms. A lot of people in the same position kind of say that pillows and your arms definitely help that while also helping stabilize your body to not roll over in the middle of the night and cause any disruptions. She’s been really sweet checking on me every other day. And then Daniella [McBride] on my season and Robyn [Howard] from my season, I keep in touch with those three all the time, so they’ve been so nice and sweet.
You girls sound like you got very close on the show.
You just wouldn’t think that. You think that it’s competition-based and that the claws are going to come out and the drama is going to be in full force, but in reality, you’re spending most of your day, if not all of it sometimes, with these girls. And you have to talk about it at some point, or you’re just going to go crazy. And so then you begin to form friendships and that’s kind of what you leave with over anything else, especially for the 24 girls who didn’t get a final rose in the end.
How did it feel after surgery when you first saw yourself without breasts?
The first time I saw my bare chest, no boobs, nothing, was on a FaceTime call in the hospital. The day after surgery. It looked like I got in a vicious bear fight, I mean, it just looked bruised and beaten and traumatic and very eye-opening. I’m lucky because I only have one scar going from kind of the base of my breast to the nipple, so there’s no horizontal line going the whole length. But I mean, still, that scar is huge and everything is just so deflated. I mean, I almost wish I could share a whole picture with everybody just for educational purposes because if I could do that, it would be shocking. I shared a picture just kind of my flat chest the other day, but that doesn’t really even skim the surface of what it really looks like underneath.
How did you feel in that moment?
That moment was more just of a Oh my God feeling than anything else. I didn’t break down. Mostly because I know that a plastic surgeon can rebuild anything these days and this is short-term. It was more just like a stunning moment — just dead in my tracks. This is what I look like. I’d never had surgery before. I’d never gone under anesthesia before. This is all so new to me and it took my breath away more than anything else. I didn’t regret anything in that moment, but it just stunned me more than anything.
You’re planning to undergo reconstructive surgery. Will they be grafting fat from other parts of your body?
I think it could go either way because most of the time it’s implants. After the breast surgeon took breast tissue out, the plastic surgeon immediately came in and put expanders in. So every two to three weeks I’ll go in and get filled and it’ll get gradually bigger until I’m ready to undergo reconstructive surgery. And then he’ll take out the expanders and put in the implants. The only time they go in and take fat from another part of your body is if you’re just a very thin person and really have no — at the end of the day, they took out all your breast tissue. If the top of your chest can’t really compensate for the amount of implant towards the bottom of your chest, you kind of need some support on the top. I think that’s when they’ll go in and get tissue — fat — from somewhere else on your body and put it on the top. We haven’t discussed that yet. I wouldn’t really be surprised if I had to do that because I have always been pretty small and bare-chested. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that, but we haven’t really breached that topic yet.
Do you have a date set for your reconstructive surgery?
No date just because I think everybody’s different. How they heal and we discussed a possible timeline of late July to early August because I think there’s a bare minimum of three months from first to second surgery. I mean three months is the bare minimum, so I think they typically like a few more weeks in between there. So that would be end of July, beginning of August.
It will be such a new experience for you, specifically during summertime.
I’ve started this journey that I’m in at an interesting time just because I’m doing it through spring and summer. I typically love to go to the beach or any tropical destination around the world and wear a bikini. This time it’s going to be very different because I have no idea what I’m going to look like. The thing about expanders is they’re football-shaped, so they don’t look like the most natural thing on the planet. Hence, why I’m thankful for my long hair to kind of cover everything up.
I don’t really know what to expect this summer wearing bikinis and stuff like that because I will start getting filled in probably the next few weeks, so probably by the next two fills I’ll be close to the same size I used to be, I would think. I think I’m going to be pretty close to the same size and then maybe go a little bigger, but I don’t really know what that looks like or feels like with expanders. It will be definitely a new experience. A lot of me wishes this was all going on in the dead of winter, but here we are. But, I mean, I like the beach too much to not make a few visits. So I will be there baring it all in a bikini whether they look good or not.
Have you gotten a lot of positive affirmation from followers?
The amount of support that I’ve gotten from my followers is overwhelming. I think that’s the perfect word for it. Purely because I had no idea it was going to make an effect on them like this and I had no idea that so many people were sharing in my same journey,
I had a message from a girl who had a double mastectomy the exact same day as I did last Tuesday. She literally feels my exact pain. It’s so nice to connect with people like that and even others who had it done two, three or four years ago who you can ask questions to and they’ll answer completely honestly.
I don’t really know what to expect, but it’s nice to share in commiserating or laughing with all these people who have come out to support me: complete strangers. I’m just scrolling through comments the other day and broke down crying because I just was overwhelmed with emotion and the goodness in humanity. This platform brings so much love and support to my life and I think others right now, so I’m definitely in a good place, even after having a body part cut off over a week ago. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. It’s blown my mind.
Are you dating anyone? Have they been supportive in your journey?
I’m in a pretty new relationship, but [Julian]’s been incredibly supportive from the beginning. Just sharing posts and wearing pink. He’s been great. Along with my friends and family who wore pink the day before my surgery too — it was a big thing where they all posted selfies of themselves and used hashtags like #lesleysbreasties — he’s been super, super positive along with everybody else.
Since your journey on The Bachelor ended, you’re now doing full-time travel blogging. What a fun job!
It’s been really amazing. I moved to Argentina a few years ago and started my blog there and just started reaching out to any kind of travel company I could think of and had no idea what I was doing, but it’s all a learning process. Through trial and error, you kind of find success somewhere along the way and see what works. It’s just been a major success since then. I’ve always loved to travel, so moving abroad didn’t really come out of left field for me.
I think once your start traveling, you don’t really stop, so that’s kind of one of the hardest things right now is staying still. I have to learn to like being still and that’s been hard. I posted a picture today of where I was a year ago — exactly a year ago — and it was one of my most favorite trips ever and it was climbing up the side of a mountain, sleeping in this capsule in Peru and it’s just so crazy to think how much your life can change in a year. Just looking back on that makes me want to travel all over again. And I know it’s coming, I just have to be really patient, which is a tough lesson to learn sometimes.
When are you able to start traveling again?
I just learned yesterday that my first trip will be mid-May to Europe. I knew that was coming, so I got the okay from the doctors before surgery because that’s pretty much the minimum time around five weeks or so post-surgery that I can go anywhere. They weren’t thrilled about it because they were like, “If you’re away in some foreign country and you get an infection, please at least be aware of where the nearest hospital is where you can go and get help.” Doctors are just nervous and I totally get it. So I’m going to be as careful as possible. My mom’s going to go with me on the first trip and carry my camera bag and luggage and everything because she’s the best and I just absolutely cannot lift anything in an overhead bin at this point — and even a month from now. Stuff like that’s going to be difficult, but I’ll at least be able to travel by mid-May.