Breast Cancer Reconstruction
Breast cancer requiring a mastectomy can be devastating to a woman’s physical and emotional health. Studies have shown that breast reconstruction may significantly improve the cancer patient’s body image and improve her quality of life.
The natural breast may never be exactly replicated, but it can be closely approximated. Realistic patients are usually very happy with their results. Federal law requires that insurance companies cover breast reconstruction and matching procedures for the opposite breast. Breast reconstruction has not been shown to increase breast cancer recurrence incidence.
The breast may be reconstructed by using breast implants (expander reconstruction) versus the patient’s own tissue (autologous reconstruction) versus a combination of the two. Which technique would be most appropriate is sometimes a complicated decision which must be made by the patient and surgeon. Both method and timing may be impacted by the extent of cancer, the patient’s body type, her overall health, and need for chemotherapy or radiation.
Breast reconstruction usually involves more than one operation. Expect the process to last 6 to 12 months. Sometimes surgery, such as reduction or mastopexy, is the performed on the opposite breast to match the reconstructed breast. Some patients elect to have bilateral (both sides) mastectomy to minimize their future cancer risks and to maximize their symmetry.
Immediate breast reconstruction is a reconstruction that is begun at the time of mastectomy. It may involve tissue moved from the abdomen or the back, but more frequently is performed with a tissue expander which is partially filled and then held in place with the assistance of a material called acellular dermis which acts like a demi cup bra. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach and some patients are better candidates than others.
Advantages of immediate reconstruction include potentially having one fewer operation, having immediate volume on the chest was so the appearance is not so devastating post mastectomy, and maximal preservation of tissue for maximal size. Nipple sparing mastectomies almost always require an immediate approach. Disadvantages of immediate reconstruction are primarily secondary to healing problems from mastectomy skin flap with poor thickness and blood supply, so an experienced general surgeon is a crucial part of the team. The general surgeon has a very difficult job – the flaps must be thin enough to remove the breast tissue, but thick enough to have a good blood supply. Healing problems include scarring and infection which can lead to expander removal, backing up the process considerably. Radiation, if it turns out to be necessary, can severely effect the skin as well. Delayed reconstruction (starting about 6 weeks post mastectomy) usually avoids the skin flap healing problems, but of course, gives up the advantages of the immediate approach. A delayed result can usually be just as good as an immediate one.
What is the best way to go then? I and others believe it is to select good candidates (ones with few risk factors) for immediate reconstruction and make sure they are appropriately counseled to the risks, benefits, and alternatives. Studies have proven risk factors for immediate reconstruction problems include C cup breast or larger, expander diameter greater than 13 cm, BMI outside of normal range, age greater than 50, nicotine use (smoking, vaping, chewing, patches), medical problems, chemotherapy possible or known, radiation therapy possible or known, and inexperienced general surgeon. Having some of these factors does not mean you cannot have an immediate reconstruction, but it does mean that you will be at higher risk for problems.
In the Treasure Valley, the decision whether immediate reconstruction is offered is usually made by the general surgeon with the agreement of the patient and plastic surgeon, as well as the rest of the breast cancer team.
Tissue Expander with Implant
A tissue expander (deflated silicone rubber shaped balloon with filling port) is placed under the skin and muscle of the mastectomy site. Saline is added in the operating room and then weekly in the office to the expander. This device stretches the skin and muscle as it expands. When the skin has been sufficiently stretched, the tissue expander is removed replaced by a permanent breast implant. Nipple reconstruction, is frequently performed at the same time, limiting the reconstruction to just two procedures.
Advantages: This method is the simplest surgery, may usually be performed as an outpatient, and has the shortest recovery. It can give excellent results in women with a small opposite side breast or who require reconstruction on both sides. It is also a favored procedure for women who have heath problems or contraindications to extensive surgery.
Disadvantages: The patient must make multiple trips to the office over several weeks or to undergo expansion. A second procedure must then be performed to exchange the expander for the permanent breast implant. The implant may not match the opposite breast well, even if matching procedures are performed. The implant may have thin tissue coverage and there may be deforming or painful scarring around the implant (contractures). If the chest has been irradiated, expander reconstruction is best accompanied by a latissimus flap (see below).
Latissimus Dorsi Myocutaneous Flap
The latissimus dorsi is a large sheet like muscle which covers the mid to lower back. This muscle and its overlying skin may be transferred from the back to the chest to help create a new breast mound. Most frequently, Dr. Wigod latissimus flap rotation with expander reconstruction in patients who have had radiation.
Advantages: This is usually a very reliable procedure and provides a good environment for an implant. The chances of capsule formation around the implant are reduced. It is a good choice for patients who have had radiation, but are not candidates for a TRAM flap. Shoulder mobility is not affected. Recovery is easier than for a TRAM flap.
Disadvantages: Operation requires an additional three hours in the operating room to whatever other reconstruction is planned and 2-4 day hospital stay. There is a significant scar across the back. There may be decreased strength in the back due to muscle loss, but most patients find that this does not limit their activities of daily living. The tissue flap may die secondary to poor oxygen supply or blood drainage. Total loss is very uncommon, but small areas of loss may occur.
Nipple reconstruction adds an essential final touch to the new breast. It is usually performed at the time of implant exchange with expander reconstructions or at 3-6 months post TRAM reconstruction. Nipple-areola formation is an outpatient procedure which requires 1-2 hours. Tissue on the reconstructed breast mound is cut and folded to form a cone shaped nipple ( Skate Flap technique). Skin is taken from the inner part of the upper thigh to make an areola. This area tends to have a darker pigment for the areola which will provide a better contrast to the breast tissue. The tissue donor site is usually well hidden and tolerated. Many excellent surgeons use tattoo techniques, but Dr. Wigod believes the grafting technique delivers the best results.
After the operation a cotton bolster holds the skin graft in place for a week and is then removed. The operative site must remain dry until removal. The nipple at first will have too much projection, but then will contract to an appropriate height. The grafted areola will darken and usually hold its color. The result is very good for most patients, but an exact copy of the opposite nipple cannot be produced. Problems may include poor skin graft take, donor site healing difficulties, or excessive loss of nipple height.
Breast Fat Grafting
Fat grafting is a useful technique for both breast cancer reconstruction and aesthetic breast surgery applications. Fat is harvested from the body (most frequently the abdomen or flanks), refined, and injected back into the breast. Fat may be used to soften the edges of a breast implant, improve contour irregularities, or add volume. Grafted fat is approximately 50% permanent and repeat procedures may be indicated.