DIEP flap surgery - so why all the hype? If you are a woman facing mastectomy due to breast cancer, one of the decisions you face is whether you want breast reconstruction. If you do, the DIEP flap may hold the key.
Although reconstruction cannot replace the breast(s) you were born with or allow you to breastfeed, it can restore your natural silhouette and make you feel "whole" again following mastectomy. Depending on your health, breast reconstruction can be performed immediately after your mastectomy so you can wake up with new breasts already in place. While the cosmetic results with immediate reconstruction are generally superior (particularly when combined with nipple-sparing or skin-sparing mastectomy), reconstructive surgery can also be performed at a later time once the cancer treatment has been completed.
DIEP flap surgery represents today's gold standard in breast restoration. Advances in breast reconstructive techniques have made it possible to use excess skin and fat from the abdomen (like the tissue removed during a tummy tuck) to construct a new, "natural" breast without the need for implants or the sacrifice of abdominal muscle. The DIEP (Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator) flap is a sophisticated modification of an existing surgery known as the TRAM (Transverse Rectus Abdominus Myocutaneous) flap.
TRAM surgery is a common breast reconstruction technique that requires the rectus abdominus (sit-up) muscle to be sacrificed and relocated to the upper abdomen. Unfortunately, this technique can be associated with significant post-operative pain, prolonged recovery, loss of abdominal muscle strength (up to 20%), abdominal bulging (or "pooching"), and even abdominal hernia.
DIEP breast reconstruction is similar to the TRAM procedure but spares the rectus abdominus muscle. ONLY SKIN AND FAT are removed from the abdomen, transplanted to the chest and connected using microsurgery to create the new breast. Saving the abdominal muscles means patients experience less pain, enjoy a faster recovery, maintain their core strength long-term, and have a much lower risk of complications.
Knowing the significant advantages of DIEP flap surgery it is easy to understand the reason for all the hype, especially for active individuals who don't want to sacrifice the strength of their abdomen. A breast that has been reconstructed with fat and skin will also look and feel more natural than an implant reconstruction and will last longer without the long-term risks that can be associated with implants. Unlike an implant, the reconstructed breast is warm and also ages like a natural breast.
As with all types of breast reconstruction, 2 or 3 stages performed a few months apart are often required to complete the reconstruction process and to obtain the best cosmetic result. Unfortunately, due to the complexity of the surgery, few centers in the US perform the DIEP procedure so some patients have to travel for the procedure. The good news is that many of these specialist centers will accommodate out-of-state and even international patients.
To learn if a breast center or plastic surgeon near you offers this advanced procedure, please check the following websites:
Questions to Ask your DIEP Flap Surgeon
Before choosing a surgeon be sure to ask the following questions:
- Are you certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery? All PRMA surgeons are board certified plastic surgeons.
- Do you have extensive experience with this type of surgery - How many have you performed? Preferably over 100 procedures. The PRMA surgeons have successfully performed thousands of DIEP flap procedures and perform 550-600 every year.
- What's your success rate? Top specialist centers boast a success rate of over 97%. The success rate at PRMA is over 99%.
- How long does the surgery take? This will vary between institutions based on experience. DIEP flap reconstruction at PRMA typically takes 3-6 hours depending on whether one or both breast are being reconstructed.
- How often do you plan to perform a DIEP flap but end up changing the procedure to a free TRAM flap during the surgery? This happens very rarely at PRMA.
- How many microsurgeons will be performing the surgery? Since the procedure is so technically demanding, it is preferable to have two microsurgeons performing the surgery (as is the case at PRMA) rather than just one. Not only will this ensure you benefit from the expertise of two specially trained surgeons, but it also significantly reduces the length of the procedure and anesthesia.
- Do you have residents or fellows? Will they be performing any of my surgery? Some centers have surgeons-in-training known as "residents" or "fellows" that may be helping with your surgery or even performing part of it. This may or may not be something you are comfortable with considering the complexity of the surgery. We do not currently have residents or fellows at PRMA.
- Do you "balance bill"? Centers that are in-network for most plans (like PRMA) will ask the patient to pay ONLY what's laid out by the patient's insurance plan (ie copay, deductible, etc). Other centers "accept insurance" and will often help the patient get money back from their insurance company - however, the patient is still expected to provide the difference between what the insurance pays and the doctor's fee. This is known as "balance billing". While many centers do this, some (like PRMA) DO NOT balance bill. Make sure to ask ahead of time to avoid nasty financial surprises down the line.
- Do you have Insurance Specialists on staff? Unfortunately, some patients will face difficulties in gaining access to DIEP flap specialists even though insurance companies are federally mandated to pay for the cost of breast reconstruction. Here again it pays to seek out centers that specialize in these procedures as typically an insurance specialist is available to help patients with insurance issues. PRMA has several insurance specialists on staff.