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  • Stephen J. Delatte, M.D.
    (337) 347-9307
  • Louis G. Mes, M.D.
    (337) 504-4336
  • Hugo St. Hilaire, M.D., D.D.S
    (337) 347-9307

Breast Reconstruction

If You're Considering Breast Reconstruction…

Reconstruction of a breast that has been removed due to cancer or other disease is one of the most rewarding surgical procedures available today. New medical techniques and devices have made it possible for surgeons to create a breast that can come close in form and appearance to matching a natural breast. Frequently, reconstruction is possible immediately following breast removal (mastectomy), so the patient wakes up with a breast mound already in place, having been spared the experience of seeing herself with no breast at all.

But bear in mind, post-mastectomy breast reconstruction is not a simple procedure. There are often many options to consider as you and your doctor explore what's best for you.

This information will give you a basic understanding of the procedure - when it's appropriate, how it's done, and what results you can expect. It can't answer all of your questions, since a lot depends on your individual circumstances. Please be sure to ask your surgeon if there is anything you don't understand about the procedure.

The Best Candidates for Breast Reconstruction

Most mastectomy patients are medically appropriate for reconstruction, many at the same time that the breast is removed. The best candidates, however, are women whose cancer, as far as can be determined, seems to have been eliminated by mastectomy.

Still, there are legitimate reasons to wait. Many women aren't comfortable weighing all the options while they're struggling to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. Others simply don't want to have any more surgery than is absolutely necessary. Some patients may be advised by their surgeon to wait, particularly if the breast is being rebuilt in a more complicated procedure using flaps of skin and underlying tissue. Women with other health conditions, such as obesity, high blood pressure, or smoking, may also be advised to wait.

In any case, being informed of your reconstruction options before surgery can help you prepare for a mastectomy with a more positive outlook for the future.

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All Surgery Carries Some Uncertainty and Risk

Virtually any woman who must lose her breast to cancer can have it rebuilt through reconstructive surgery. But there are risks associated with any surgery and specific complications associated with this procedure.

In general, the usual problems of surgery, such as bleeding, fluid collection, excessive scar tissue, or difficulties with anesthesia, can occur although they're relatively uncommon. And, as with any surgery, smokers should be advised that nicotine can delay healing, resulting in conspicuous scars and prolonged recovery. Occasionally, these complications are severe enough to require a second operation.

If an implant is used, there is a remote possibility that an infection will develop, usually within the first two weeks following surgery. In some of these cases, the implant may need to be removed for several months until the infection clears. A new implant can later be inserted.

The most common problem, capsular contracture, occurs if the scar or capsule around the implant begins to tighten. This squeezing of the soft implant can cause the breast to feel hard. Capsular contracture can be treated in several ways, and sometimes requires either removal or scoring of the scar tissue, or perhaps removal or replacement of the implant.

Reconstruction has no known effect on the recurrence of disease in the breast, nor does it generally interfere with chemotherapy or radiation treatment, should cancer recur. Your surgeon may recommend continuation of periodic mammograms on both the reconstructed and the remaining normal breast. If your reconstruction involves an implant, be sure to go to a radiology center where technicians are experienced in the special techniques required to get a reliable x-ray of a breast reconstructed with an implant.

Women who postpone reconstruction may go through a period of emotional readjustment. Just as it took time to get used to the loss of a breast, a woman may feel anxious and confused as she begins to think of the reconstructed breast as her own.

Types of Reconstruction Surgeries

Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator (DIEP) Flap Breast Reconstruction

In a DIEP flap, fat, skin, and blood vessels (but no muscle at all) are cut from the wall of the lower belly and moved up to your chest to rebuild your breast. Your surgeon carefully reattaches the blood vessels of the flap to blood vessels in your chest using microsurgery. Because no muscle is used, most women recover more quickly and have a lower risk of losing abdominal muscle strength with a DIEP flap compared to any of the TRAM flap procedures.

Because the DIEP flap procedure requires special surgical training as well as expertise in microsurgery, not all surgeons can do a DIEP flap. If you're considering a DIEP flap, Drs. Delatte, Mes & St. Hilaire have performed many procedures of this type right here in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Latissimus Dorsi Flap

The latissimus dorsi (LD) flap is a standard method for breast reconstruction that was first utilized in the 1970's. The latissimus dorsi flap is most commonly combined with a tissue expander or implant, to give the surgeon additional options and more control over the aesthetic appearance of the reconstructed breast. This flap provides a source of soft tissue that can help create a more natural looking breast shape as compared to an implant alone. Occasionally, for a thin patient with a small breast volume, the latissimus dorsi flap can be used alone as the primary reconstruction without the need for an implant.

Tissue Expansion/Implants

Tissue expansion is a relatively straightforward procedure that enables the body to "grow" extra skin for use in reconstructing almost any part of the body.

A silicone balloon expander is inserted under the skin near the area to be repaired and then gradually filled with salt water over time, causing the skin to stretch and grow. It is most commonly used for breast reconstruction following breast removal, but it's also used to repair skin damaged by birth defects, accidents or surgery, and in certain cosmetic procedures.

If your doctor is recommending tissue expansion, this will give you a basic understanding of the procedure - when it can help, how it's performed, and what results you can expect. It can't answer all of your questions, however, since much depends on your individual circumstances. Please be sure to ask your surgeon if there is anything you don't understand about the procedure.

Types of Implants

If your surgeon recommends the use of an implant, you'll want to discuss what type of implant should be used. A breast implant is a silicone shell filled with either silicone gel or a salt-water solution known as saline.

The Surgery

While there are many options available in post-mastectomy reconstruction, you and your surgeon should discuss the one that's best for you.

Skin expansion. The most common technique combines skin expansion and subsequent insertion of an implant.

Following mastectomy, your surgeon will insert a balloon expander beneath your skin and chest muscle. Through a tiny valve mechanism buried beneath the skin, he or she will periodically inject a salt-water solution to gradually fill the expander over several weeks or months. After the skin over the breast area has stretched enough, the expander may be removed in a second operation and a more permanent implant will be inserted. Some expanders are designed to be left in place as the final implant. The nipple and the dark skin surrounding it, called the areola, are reconstructed in a subsequent procedure.

Some patients do not require preliminary tissue expansion before receiving an implant. For these women, the surgeon will proceed with inserting an implant as the first step.

Flap Reconstruction

An alternative approach to implant reconstruction involves creation of a skin flap using tissue taken from other parts of the body, such as the back, abdomen, or buttocks.

In one type of flap surgery, the tissue remains attached to its original site, retaining its blood supply. The flap, consisting of the skin, fat, and muscle with its blood supply, are tunneled beneath the skin to the chest, creating a pocket for an implant or, in some cases, creating the breast mound itself, without need for an implant.

Another flap technique uses tissue that is surgically removed from the abdomen, thighs, or buttocks and then transplanted to the chest by reconnecting the blood vessels to new ones in that region. This procedure requires the skills of a plastic surgeon who is experienced in microvascular surgery as well.

Regardless of whether the tissue is tunneled beneath the skin on a pedicle or transplanted to the chest as a microvascular flap, this type of surgery is more complex than skin expansion. Scars will be left at both the tissue donor site and at the reconstructed breast, and recovery will take longer than with an implant. On the other hand, when the breast is reconstructed entirely with your own tissue, the results are generally more natural and there are no concerns about a silicone implant. In some cases, you may have the added benefit of a improved abdominal contour.

Follow-Up Procedures

Most breast reconstruction involves a series of procedures that occur over time. Usually, the initial reconstructive operation is the most complex. Follow-up surgery may be required to replace a tissue expander with an implant or to reconstruct the nipple and the areola. Many surgeons recommend an additional operation to enlarge, reduce, or lift the natural breast to match the reconstructed breast. But keep in mind, this procedure may leave scars on an otherwise normal breast and may not be covered by insurance.

Find out how to prepare for your surgery here.

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