Breast Reconstruction: Reconstructive Options After Mastectomy

By: Dr. Minas Chrysopoulo

Blogs
February 20, 2010

Every woman has a right to breast reconstruction surgery after breast cancer. This has been a federal mandate for some time and insurance companies have to pay for breast reconstruction surgery by law. There is no age limitation for breast reconstruction and there are many different options available.

When the breast reconstruction is performed at the same setting as the mastectomy it is referred to as "immediate" reconstruction. The biggest advantage of immediate reconstruction is that the patient wakes up from the surgery still "whole" and completely avoids having to live without a breast. Other advantages include shorter scars and, generally speaking, a better cosmetic result.

In some instances immediate reconstruction is not recommended or is not possible and the reconstruction is performed several months after the mastectomy. This is called "delayed" reconstruction. Women with more advanced disease are usually not candidates for immediate reconstruction because of the need for radiation therapy after the mastectomy. While some plastic surgeons still perform immediate reconstruction in these cases, most prefer to delay the reconstruction until a later date to allow the tissues to recover.

The most common breast reconstruction procedure performed by American plastic surgeons utilizes implants to restore the breast shape and form. These can be either saline or silicone. Implant reconstruction is typically performed as two separate surgeries. The first involves placing a tissue expander (temporary implant) under the skin and pectoral muscle. This is used to expand the skin to the required size. The expander is later replaced by the permanent implant at a second surgery. A few surgeons prefer using a one-stage approach and place the permanent implant at the same time as the mastectomy. While not all patients are candidates, this is a very attractive option for many women because they avoid the entire tissue expander phase of the reconstruction.

Implant reconstruction can be the best option for some patients. However, reconstruction with expanders and breast implants are associated with more complications than cosmetic breast augmentation. Complications following radiation therapy are also higher with implants compared to reconstructions using the patient's own tissue.

The Latissimus procedure uses muscle (latissimus dorsi), fat and skin from the back (below the shoulder blade) that is brought around to the chest to create a new breast. Many patients also need an expander or implant to obtain a satisfactory result in terms of size. Patients typically have a scar on their back that can be seen with some low-cut clothing. Women who are very active in sports may notice some strength loss with activities like golf, climbing, or tennis.

Tissue can also be taken from the lower abdomen to create the new breast. The TRAM flap uses the same tissue that is removed by a tummy tuck. This skin and fat is transferred along with variable amounts of the rectus (sit-up) muscle. This tissue can be tunneled under the upper abdominal skin (pedicled TRAM), or disconnected from the body and reconnected to the chest using microsurgery (free TRAM). All forms of TRAM flap can improve the abdominal contour just like a tummy tuck. Unfortunately, women can notice loss of abdominal muscle strength due to the sacrifice of the rectus muscle. There is also a risk of bulging of the tummy and even hernia.

Over the last decade or so, the TRAM has been replaced by the DIEP flap as the new breast reconstruction gold standard. The DIEP provides a natural, warm, soft reconstruction together with an improved abdominal contour, just like the TRAM flap. However, unlike the TRAM, the DIEP flap spares the abdominal muscles completely. The tissue is disconnected from the body completely and reattached at the chest using microsurgery. This makes the post-op recovery easier and also significantly decreases the risk of abdominal bulging and hernia.

There are a handful of other tissue options available for women who are not candidates or prefer to avoid using their abdominal tissue. These include the inner, upper thigh (TUG flap), lower buttock crease (IGAP), and upper buttock (SGAP). The best tissue option will depend on a number of factors, primarily the patient's body habitus.

Microsurgical breast reconstruction procedures like the DIEP, TUG and GAP flaps are not offered routinely by many American plastic surgeons. There are many reasons for this, primarily the complexity of the surgery and the need for additional training. Unfortunately most patients seeking one of these breast reconstruction options after mastectomy will be forced to travel to specialized centers for their surgery.

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