A guest blog by Kathy Steligo
Although many women choose to forego breast reconstruction, it is almost always an option after mastectomy. Research shows that reconstruction can improve psychological well-being and quality of life, and result in improved body image and self-esteem. Most women are not informed about breast reconstruction before their mastectomy, however, so it pays to do your homework to discover and understand the benefits and limitation of all your alternatives.
Breast reconstruction is a topic of interest to our community, because so many of us face mastectomy to either treat or prevent breast cancer. So we’re very happy to bring you this month’s blog. In keeping with our 2012 “13 Things” theme, we present 13 informational tidbits about reconstruction.
We also recommend two new publications to help with your decision-making process. Our new Show & Tell book includes photos and personal comments from FORCE members who have had reconstruction. And the long-awaited 3rd edition of The Breast Reconstruction Guidebook hit the streets on November 8 (you can review the Table of Contents on the link above). The FORCE Post Mastectomy Photo Gallery is another resource for viewing post-mastectomy photos (and uploading your own photos to share with others).
- New breasts can be reconstructed at any time following mastectomy, even years later, but there are definite cosmetic advantages to immediate reconstruction that is performed simultaneously with mastectomy. Immediate procedures allow for minimized mastectomy incisions that are made to facilitate reconstruction.
- Reconstruction doesn’t restore sensation that is lost when tissue is removed during mastectomy. Most women have very little sensation in their reconstructed breasts. Much of the area remains permanently numb, although minimal feeling does return as some nerves regenerate. Generally, some feeling is recovered in the upper portion or outer perimeter of the breast in the areas that are farthest from the mastectomy incision. Nor do reconstructed nipples have sensation or response. Although they look quite real, they lack nerves that produce feeling in the skin. Women with tissue flaps often regain more feeling than women with implants, because the fine nerves in the flaps regrow once they are transferred to the chest.
- Many women are candidates for nipple-sparing or areola-sparing mastectomies, which require a breast surgeon who is experienced with these procedures. (Cancer originating in the nipple is rare; most women’s nipples do not include the intraductal infrastructure that supports formation of breast cancer cells.) Healthy nipples on reconstructed breasts don’t always retain natural sensation, because much of the underlying nerve system is destroyed when breast tissue is removed. Areola-sparing mastectomies remove the nipple but preserve the pigmented skin surrounding it.
- Independent review of hundreds of scientific papers has identified no proven link between implants and systemic disease or autoimmune disorders.
- Physicians cannot predict which women will have problems with implants, but having radiation therapy compromises blood flow to the skin, which increases the likelihood of capsular contracture and other problematic issues.
- Implants remain the same size over time, while breasts rebuilt with your own tissue change according to fluctuations in your weight.
- Some surgeons use hybrid expander-implants that are gradually filled with saline. When the desired size is reached, the fill valve is sealed and the expander-implant is left in place. No exchange surgery is required.
- Plastic surgeons who perform traditional expander-to-implant surgery and attached tissue flap procedures that use skin, fat, and muscle are more common (and easier to find) than surgeons who provide direct-to-implant and muscle-sparing flap procedures.
- Although they are still in the minority, more surgeons are performing muscle-sparing breast reconstruction procedures.
- Expander-to-implant reconstruction requires a shorter surgery than a tissue flap operation, but the overall timeline is longer.
- Fat grafting—liposuctioning fat from the body and transferring it to the new breast—is often used to improve symmetry, contour and other cosmetic defects. The process isn’t always completely successful, however, and often 50% of more of the transplanted fat is resorbed by the body. New methods of fat grafting may offer intriguing possibilities, keeping a greater percentage of transferred fat in the breast, and even building new breasts without surgery, but much more study is needed.
- You can “train” for surgery. Being in the best possible physical condition will help your body weather surgery and recovery. You don’t have to attain the level of a professional athlete, but anything you do to strengthen your cardiovascular system and body will help you get back to your normal routine. If you smoke, you must refrain from doing so for at least three weeks before and after your surgery (maybe it will be the impetus you need to quit for good!) Smoking restricts blood flow throughout the body and can potentially compromise any surgery. It is particularly troublesome with flap reconstruction, because a portion or all of the new breast can die without a robust blood supply.
- The Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 requires group health plans that cover mastectomy to also pay for breast reconstruction, including procedures that are required to attain symmetry or to address complications. The law, however, does not stipulate specific surgeons, hospitals or procedures. That is left to the terms of the health insurance policy.