Impact of Radiation on Breast Reconstruction Surgery

By: Dr. Minas Chrysopoulo


Can radiation therapy impact breast reconstruction results? 

Radiation therapy is often recommended as part of breast cancer treatment. Patients undergoing lumpectomy receive radiation routinely once they've healed from surgery. Some mastectomy patients also need radiation after surgery depending on the characteristics of the tumor. I think it is fair to say that most reconstructive breast surgeons, myself included, are not particularly fond of radiation because of the way it impacts the patient's tissues (and breast reconstruction in general.)

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that "life comes before breast" and in certain situations there is a definite benefit for the patient in having radiation therapy.

So what's the problem with radiation therapy (from a plastic surgeon's perspective)?

For starters it can cause toughening (fibrosis) and shrinking (contracture) of the patient's tissue which makes the tissue lose its elasticity and become more tough and rigid. Skin color changes are common, red at first turning more brown over time. Radiation can also cause burn injuries as well as damage to underlying organs such as the lungs and heart. Anyone who is facing radiation therapy must discuss all the potential risks with their their radiation oncologist beforehand.

Women undergoing lumpectomy are often told that most of their breast will be preserved and that radiation is given "as insurance" to decrease the risk of cancer recurrence. What many women don't appreciate is that the breast can end up looking vastly different once the treatment is done because of radiation changes, even though they underwent "breast conservation".

Many women end up going to see a plastic surgeon anyway to fix this unforeseen problem, which ironically can include the same reconstructive procedures as for mastectomy. Radiation after a tissue reconstruction (eg tram flap, diep flap) can cause the reconstructed breast to shrink and harden. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common scenario. Less frequently (with heavy radiation doses), new wounds can develop in the reconstructed breast which need wound care. Patients facing radiation after flap breast reconstruction should know that there is a risk of needing further reconstructive surgery to correct changes caused by the radiation therapy.

One study found a re-operation rate of almost 30 % in patients receiving radiation after TRAM flap reconstruction.

Tissue expander / implant reconstructions fair even worse with radiation. The complication rates in this setting are much higher than with tissue reconstructions, including complete failure of the reconstruction altogether (and removal of the implant). Some surgeons routinely offer implant reconstructions to patients that are either facing or have already had radiation therapy. There are even articles published in the plastic surgery literature supporting it. I have to respectfully disagree (strongly). In my experience mixing implants with radiation typically ends badly. I will only do this in the very rare instance that there is absolutely no other option.

So what's the take-home message?

1) "Breast conservation" can fall short of the patient's cosmetic expectations.

2) breast implants and radiation do not mix well.

3) If you're facing radiation after mastectomy think twice about insisting on immediate reconstruction. You may be lucky and things may work out just fine. However, there's also a good chance you'll be signing up for more surgery than you bargained for.

Dr C

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