Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy & Lumpectomy - What Are Your Options?

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Breast reconstruction makes women whole again after breast cancer. It restores something that nature provided but cancer has taken away. It is covered by insurance thanks to a 1998 Federal Mandate.

Unfortunately, many breast cancer patients are not offered the option of breast reconstruction after mastectomy or lumpectomy.

Women have several reconstructive options. These range from implants to "flap" techniques which use the patient's own tissue to recreate a "natural", warm, soft breast. 

PRMA is one of the leading breast reconstruction practices in the World. We are very experienced with all types of reconstructive breast surgery, but do have a strong focus on state-of-the-art microsurgical procedures using the patient's own tissue. This is because these procedures generally provide superior and much more "natural" results long-term than implants. Flap procedures are also strongly recommended instead of implants if the patient has had or will be having radiation.

Immediate vs. Delayed Breast Reconstruction

These terms define when the reconstructive process begins.

Immediate reconstruction is performed at the same time as the mastectomy. Advantages include keeping the natural breast skin ("skin sparing mastectomy") and less scarring. In some cases nipple-sparing mastectomy can be performed; this preserves the nipple and areola as well as the breast skin.

Immediate reconstruction enables the patient to wake up from the surgery "complete" and avoid the experience of a flat chest. Most women with early breast cancer (stage I or II) are candidates.

Delayed reconstruction usually takes place several months after the mastectomy. Patients having radiation may be advised to delay the surgery for the best results. This delay may be for several months. This allows the chest tissues to heal as much as possible after the radiation. Other reasons for delaying reconstruction include advanced disease (stage III or IV) and lack of access to a reconstructive surgeon.

Whether the reconstructive process is started at the time of the mastectomy ("immediate") or some time after ("delayed'), it important for patients to realize that in most cases, further surgery is required to complete the reconstructive process and achieve the best cosmetic results.

Breast Reconstruction Options

Tissue Expanders and Breast Implant Reconstruction

This is the most common method of reconstructive breast surgery currently being used in the United States. Most surgeons perform this is a two-stage procedure. The tissue expander is essentially a temporary breast implant which can be placed either at the same time as the mastectomy or after the mastectomy has healed.

The expander is used to stretch the skin envelope and recreate the size of breast the patient wants. The expander is ultimately replaced by a permanent implant (saline or silicone) at a separate procedure several months later. Some patients undergoing immediate breast reconstruction are candidates for one-step breast implant reconstruction whereby a permanent implant is inserted at the time of the mastectomy and the patient avoids going through the whole expansion process. In the one-step implant reconstruction the implant is completely covered by the pectoralis muscle and Alloderm (a cadaveric acellular dermal graft).

This is specially treated skin from a cadaver that is used to provide a sling and coverage of the lower part of the implant. Two types of implants are available to patients: saline and silicone. There are many opinions regarding both types of implants and it is advised that you speak with your surgeon as to which implant would be best for you. Patients who undergo implant reconstruction should be aware that their breast implants may need to be replaced at a future date.

Implant reconstruction can be the best option for some patients. However, tissue expanders and implants can be fraught with complications long-term, particularly if the patient has had or is going to have radiation therapy as part of her cancer treatments. For these reasons, many surgeons and patients prefer autologous reconstruction, i.e. reconstruction using the patient's own tissue taken from another part of the body. 

Muscle Flaps

Latissimus Dorsi Flap

The latissimus dorsi flap procedure uses muscle from the back of the shoulder blade which is brought around to the breast mound to help create a new breast. During the procedure a section of skin, fat and muscle is detached from the back and brought to the breast area.

Many patients also need a tissue expander placed under the muscle ap in order to obtain a satisfactory result. The expander is replaced by a permanent implant at a second procedure down the line. Patients will have a scar on their back shoulder region that can sometimes be seen through a tank top, swimsuit or sundress. The upper back can be numb or sore for a few following this procedure until the nerves grow back and the incisions are completely healed.

Women who are very active in sports should know that this procedure can reduce ability to participate in activities like golf, climbing, swimming, or tennis.

TRAM (Transverse Rectus Abdominis Myocutaneous) Flap 

The TRAM flap was the first procedure to describe use of one of the rectus abdominis muscles (sit-up muscles) for breast reconstruction. This procedure begins with an incision from hip to hip rather like a "tummy-tuck".

A flap" of skin, fat and one of the patient's abdominal muscles is typically tunneled under the skin to the chest to create a new breast. This is known as a pedicled TRAM flap. Recovery from the TRAM flap procedure can be diffcult and painful and there is a risk of abdominal bulging (or "pooching") and even hernia. Long-term, the patient has to adapt to the loss of some abdominal strength (up to 20 %) which most active patients will notice.

In cases where both breasts are being reconstructed, both abdominal muscles are sacrificed and transferred to the chest (one for each breast). The loss of abdominal strength in these situations is far greater and very significant.

Over the years and with the introduction of microsurgery, the procedure has evolved several times with each modification preserving more and more abdominal muscle. This has made postoperative recovery a little easier and has decreased the potential for abdominal complications somewhat.

Perforator Flaps

Perforator flap techniques use skin and fat from various parts of the body. All muscles are preserved. Since no muscle is sacrificed recovery is much easier and muscle strength and function are preserved long-term. The downside to these procedures is that they are technically much more demanding than other breast reconstruction techniques and require microsurgical expertise. For this reason they are not offered by many plastic surgeons and patients must be prepared to travel when choosing these procedures.

DIEP (Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator) Flap

The DIEP flap is the latest evolution of the TRAM flap (discussed in Part II) and represents today's gold standard in breast reconstruction. The DIEP flap procedure is similar to the TRAM flap but only requires the removal of skin and fat. NO MUSCLE is sacrificed. The blood

vessels required to keep the tissue alive lay just beneath the abdominal muscle. Therefore, a small incision is made in the abdominal muscle in order to dissect the vessels and microsurgery is required to reattach the blood vessels to the chest area.

Even though an incision is made in the abdominal muscle NO abdominal muscle is removed or transferred to the breast in the DIEP flap procedure. As a result, patients do not have to sacrifice their abdominal strength and they experience less pain and a much quicker recovery.

The risk of abdominal bulging and hernia is also very small.

The DIEP flap was first described in the early 1990's but has remained much less popular than the TRAM flap among plastic surgeons, presumably because of the increased complexity and diffculty of the procedure compared to the TRAM.

So the advantages of the DIEP flap are multiple: it uses living tissue to recreate a breast that often looks and feels like a normal breast; abdominal strength is not affected; the risk of bulging or hernias is significantly reduced; and, like the TRAM flap, the patient benefits from a simultaneous "tummy-tuck".

The DIEP flap is a very technically demanding operation but the benefits are tremendous for the patient, especially when performed at the same time as a skin-sparing mastectomy.

SIEA (Superficial Inferior Epigastric Artery) Flap

The SIEA flap procedure is very similar to the DIEP flap procedure. The main difference between the SIEA and DIEP is the artery used for blood flow supply to the reconstructed breast. The SIEA arteries are generally found in the fatty tissue just below skin. As in the DIEP the SIEA flap reconstruction does not sacrifice the abdominal muscle and only uses the patient's skin and fat to reconstruct the breast.

While the SIEA flap procedure is similar to the DIEP it is used less frequently since less than 20 % of patients have the anatomy required to allow this procedure.

GAP (Gluteal Artery Perforator) Flap

Women who do not have an adequate amount of abdominal tissue for reconstruction may be eligible for the GAP flap. This procedure uses excess skin and fat from the gluteal or buttock region. Fat and skin from either the upper or lower buttock region can be used and microsurgically transplanted to the chest.

Once again, no muscle is sacrificed. Incisions can generally be hidden by most underwear. If a patient requires a bilateral reconstruction with GAP flaps most surgeons prefer to only perform one side at a time. It is important to discuss this possibility with your surgeon.

Advantages of the GAP flap include: a scar that is generally hidden with underwear or swimsuits, and no loss of muscle function or strength.

Other Breast Reconstruction Options:

TUG (Transverse Upper Gracilis) Flap

Like the GAP flap, the TUG flap is an option in cases where there is not enough lower abdominal tissue to reconstruct the breast(s). The TUG procedure uses the upper part of the inner thigh; skin, fat and a small amount of muscle are disconnected and transferred to the chest to create the new breast. The patient benefits from a simultaneous inner thigh lift. Once again, this procedure is not widely available due to its complexity and need for microsurgical expertise.

It is important to realize that whichever method of reconstruction is used, the vast majority of women will require 2 or even 3 procedures for the optimal cosmetic result. Each procedure is typically separated by several weeks. The entire reconstructive process, regardless of the method of reconstruction, can therefore take several months to complete. However, breast reconstruction does NOT typically complicate or delay cancer treatment such as chemotherapy.

With all this in mind and also remembering the superior cosmetic results associated with immediate breast reconstruction (reconstruction performed at the same time as mastectomy), it is recommended that women discuss their reconstructive options with a plastic surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction before undergoing mastectomy whenever possible.

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4 Comments

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  • Sheri Turner

    Have had tummy tuck and incisional hernia repair (upper abs) before having left masectomy.
    Not interested in TRAM. What would be other options?

    Reply
    • PRMA

      Great question Sheri!  Because of your surgical history you would not be a good candidate for the TRAM or the DIEP flap, but there are other flap reconstruction options that you may be a candidate for (such as the GAP or TUG).  You can find information on your options at https://prma-enhance.com/infographics/mastectomy/

      Reply
  • Renee

    I have had multiple surgeries to reconstruct breast and each surgery is not successful. What are my options both breast look visibly different.

    Reply
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