But bear in mind, post-mastectomy breast reconstruction is not a simple procedure. There are often many options to consider as you and your doctor explore what’s best for you.
Most mastectomy patients are medically appropriate for reconstruction, many at the same time the breast is removed. The best candidates, however are women whose cancer, as far as can be determined, seems to have been eliminated by mastectomy.
Still, there are legitimate reasons to wait. Many women aren’t comfortable weighing all the options while they’re struggling to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. Others simply don’t want to have any more surgery than is absolutely necessary. Some patients may be advised by their surgeons to wait, particularly if the breast is being rebuilt in a more complicated procedure using flaps of skin and underlying tissue. Women with other health conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking, may also be advised to wait.
In any case, being informed of your reconstruction options before surgery can help you prepare for a mastectomy with a more positive outlook for the future.
All Surgery Carries Some Uncertainty and Risk
Virtually any woman who must lose her breast to cancer can have it rebuilt through reconstructive surgery. But there are risks associated with any surgery and risks specifically associated with this procedure.
In general, the usual problems of surgery, such as bleeding, fluid collection, excessive scar tissue, or difficulties with anaesthesia, can occur although they’re relatively uncommon. And, as with any surgery, smokers should be advised that nicotine can delay healing, resulting in conspicuous scars and prolonged recovery. Occasionally, these complications are severe enough to require a second operation.
If an implant is used, there is a remote possibility that an infection will develop, usually within the first two weeks following surgery. In some of these cases, the implant may need to be removed for several months until the infection clears. A new implant can later be inserted. The most common problem, capsular contracture, occurs if the scar or capsule around the implant begins to tighten. This squeezing of the soft implant can cause the breast to feel hard. Capsular contracture can be treated in several ways, and sometimes requires either removal or “scoring” of the scar tissue, or perhaps removal or replacement of the implant. (Click here for Breast Augmentation information.)
Reconstruction has no known effect on the recurrence of disease in the breast, nor does it generally interfere with chemotherapy or radiation treatment, should cancer recur. Your general surgeon may recommend continuation of the periodic mammograms on both the reconstructed and the remaining normal breast. If your reconstruction involves an implant, be sure to go to a radiology center where technicians are experienced in the special techniques required to get a reliable x-ray of a breast reconstructed with an implant.
Women who postpone reconstruction may go through a period of emotional readjustment. Just as it took time to get used to the loss of a breast, a woman may feel anxious and confused as she begins to think of the reconstructed breast as her own. The psychological benefits of having a new breast reconstructed at the time mastectomy is performed are considerable.
You can begin talking about reconstruction as soon as you’re diagnosed with cancer. Ideally, you’ll want your general surgeon and your plastic surgeon to work together to develop a strategy that will put you in the best possible condition for reconstruction.
After evaluating your health, your plastic surgeon will explain which reconstructive options are most appropriate for your age, health, anatomy, tissues, and goals. Be sure to discuss your expectations frankly.
Your surgeon will be equally frank with you, describing your options and the risks and limitations of each. Post-mastectomy reconstruction can improve your appearance and renew your self-confidence, but does not offer perfection.
Your surgeon will also explain the general anesthesia used, the hospital stay required and so on. Usually 1 or 2 nights stay in hospital on the first of the two operations commonly required (with each technique of reconstruction) is recommended.
Your surgeon will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for surgery, including guidelines on eating and drinking, smoking, and taking or avoiding certain vitamins and medications. While making preparations, be sure to arrange for someone to drive you home after your surgery and to help you out for a few days, if needed.
Breast reconstruction usually involves more than one operation. The first stage, whether done at the same time as the mastectomy or later on, is usually performed in a hospital, and involves at least an overnight stay. Follow up procedures may also be done in the hospital, usually as a day procedure (allowing you home the same day).
The first stage of reconstruction, creation of the breast mound, is almost always performed using general anesthesia, so you’ll sleep through the entire operation. Follow-up procedures may require either local anaesthesia with sedation or general anaesthesia.
If your surgeon recommends the use of an implant, you’ll want to discuss what type of implant should be used. A breast implant is a silicone shell filled with either silicone gel, a saltwater solution known as saline, or a solid rubber called cohesive gel. (click here for more information on breast augmentation )
There are many options available in post mastectomy reconstruction. Those suited to your circumstances will be discussed at consultation.
Tissue expansion: The most common technique combines tissue expansion and the subsequent insertion of an implant. Following mastectomy, your surgeon will insert a balloon expander beneath your skin and chest muscle.
Through a tiny valve mechanism forming part of the implant, he will periodically inject a saltwater solution to gradually fill the expander over several weeks or months. After the skin over the breast area has stretched enough, the expander may be removed in a second operation and a more permanent implant will be inserted.
Some expanders are designed to be left in place as the final implant. The nipple and the dark skin surrounding it called the areola, are reconstructed either at the second operation or at a subsequent procedure.
A few patients do not require preliminary tissue expansion before receiving an implant. For these women, your surgeon will proceed with inserting an implant as the first step.
Flap Reconstruction: An alternative approach to implant reconstruction involves creation of a skin flap using tissue taken from other parts of the body, such as the back or abdomen.
In one type of flap surgery, part of the tissue remains attached to its original site, retaining its blood supply from the armpit or upper abdomen. The flap, consisting of the skin, fat, and muscle with its blood supply, are tunneled beneath the skin to the chest, creating the breast mound itself, without need for an implant. Sometimes, especially with the latissimus flap, an implant is used for extra volume.
Another flap technique uses tissue that is surgically completely removed from the abdomen and then transplanted to the chest by microsurgically joining the blood vessels to new ones in that region. This procedure involves additional risks specific to microvascular surgery and in particular involves a risk of losing the entire new breast.
Regardless of whether the tissue is tunneled beneath the skin on a pedicle or transplanted to the chest as a microvascular flap, this type of surgery is more complex than skin expansion. Scars will be left at both the tissue donor site and at the reconstructed breast, and recovery will take longer than with an implant. On the other hand, when the breast is reconstructed entirely with your own tissue, the results are generally more natural and there are no concerns about a silicone implant. In some cases, you may have the added benefit of an improved abdominal contour.
Follow-up Procedures: Most breast reconstruction involves a series of procedures that occur over time. Usually, the initial reconstructive operation is the most complex. Follow-up surgery may be required to replace a tissue expander with an implant or to reconstruct the nipple and the areola. Many surgeons recommend an additional operation to enlarge, reduce, or lift the natural breast to match the reconstructed breast. But keep in mind, this procedure may leave scars on an otherwise normal breast.
You are likely to feel tired and sore for a week or two after reconstruction. Most of your discomfort can be controlled by medication. Depending on the extent of your surgery, you’ll probably be released from the hospital in two to five days. Many reconstruction options require a surgical drain to remove excess fluids from surgical sites immediately following the operation, but these are removed within the first week or two after surgery. Most stitches are absorbable.
It may take you up to six weeks to recover from a combined mastectomy and reconstruction or from a flap reconstruction alone. If implants are used without flaps and reconstruction is done apart from the mastectomy, your recovery time may be less.
Reconstruction cannot restore normal sensation to your breast, but in time, some feeling may return. Most scars will fade substantially over time, though it may take as long as one to two years, but they’ll never disappear entirely. The better the quality of your overall reconstruction, the less distracting you’ll find those scars.
Follow your surgeon’s advice on when to begin stretching exercises and normal activities. As a general rule, you’ll want to refrain from any overhead lifting, and strenuous sports, for three to six weeks following reconstruction.
Chances are your reconstructed breast may feel firmer and look rounder or flatter than your natural breast. It may not have the same contour as your breast before mastectomy, nor will it exactly match your opposite breast.
But these differences will be apparent only to you. For most mastectomy patients, breast reconstruction dramatically improves their appearance and quality of life following surgery.
If you have further questions, write them down and ask your surgeon and his friendly staff at your consultation.