Autologous (tissue flap) breast reconstruction is a fancy term that means using your own tissue to rebuild breasts after mastectomy. Fat and skin (and sometimes muscle, depending on the surgical technique and surgeon’s skill) can be taken from just about anywhere you have too much of it.

The abdomen (DIEP and TRAM procedures) is the most common source for autologous breast reconstruction, because that’s where many women have excess fat that they would love to see minimized or disappear altogether. Other fat sources for breast reconstruction include the upper or lower buttocks, and the inner thighs, another area where we women tend to collect deposits of hard-to-get-rid-of fat.

If you’re interested in autologous breast reconstruction but you’re blessed with a fit and trim tummy, your “love handles”—the outer hips just above the buttock—may provide adequate volume for your reconstructed breast. The Lumbar Artery Perforator (LAP) flap uses fat and skin from the hip, without sacrificing muscle. Removing a flap of tissue from this area leaves a horizontal scar where the waist meets the upper buttock. Hip flaps can also be combined with flaps from the abdomen or other areas to produce the overall desired breast volume.

Some interesting notes about LAP flaps:

  • Because the muscle isn’t removed or divided, recovery is somewhat quicker and less painful than tissue flaps that harvest muscle.

  • The procedure slims the hip area (a bonus!), which can be difficult to reduce with diet and exercise.

  • The resulting scar can usually hidden by most underwear and bathing suit bottoms.

Because most plastic/reconstructive surgeons do not perform LAP procedures, one of the most difficult aspects of choosing a LAP flap is finding a plastic surgeon who has the skill, expertise and experience to do it.

 
 
Women who have breast reconstruction with saline or silicone breast implants sometimes develop rippling, the appearance of visible ridges or wrinkles in the implant that show through the skin. Rippling usually develops on the outer perimeter of the reconstructed breast: on the side, bottom or in between the breasts. It may be especially visible on the top of the breast when you lean forward. It is more likely to be visible in very thin women.

What Can Be Done About Rippling?

Unfortunately, massaging, exercising or special skin products cannot get rid of rippling. In most cases, correcting the problem involves a trip back to the OR for revision surgery with one of the following fixes.

Replace the implant. Swapping out an implant sometimes eliminates rippling:

- Opt for a larger size. Implants that are too small for the pocket under the muscle can shift until they settle at the bottom of the breast, creating less volume and potentially more rippling at the top. This is often the case when the pocket is too large for the implant, or the remaining breast skin is very thin or damaged.

- Switch to silicone. Silicone implants ripple less than saline implants; this is particularly true of cohesive gel "gummy bear" silicone implants that fill out the shell more smoothly and consistently than less viscous forms of fillers.

- Replace textured with smooth. Textured implants are designed to minimize capsular contracture and to keep teardrop-shaped implants in place so that they don’t move around (or tip over) in the pocket. The roughened surface stabilizes the position of the implant by sticking to tissue (somewhat like Velcro), and that can cause rippling.

Add more saline. All saline breast implants, regardless of size, shape or model, have a recommended minimum and maximum amount of saline that should be added. (Silicone implants, on the other hand, are filled and sealed at the factory and cannot be altered.) An implant, for example, may have a recommended fill range of 300-330cc. Adding 300cc will create a softer breast, but also increases the likelihood of developing ripples, wrinkles, and folds in the implant shell, and that can eventually cause the implant to rupture. Adding 330cc is less likely to create rippling but will result in a breast that is not quite as soft. In this example, “underfilling” (adding less than 300cc) or “overfilling” (adding more than 330cc) may cause the implant to fail, and may void the manufacturer’s warranty.

Add an acellular dermal matrix. Covering the areas of rippling with a layer of acellular dermal matrix (e.g., AlloDerm or Strattice) creates an additional barrier between the implant and the breast skin. 

Reposition the implant. Unlike implants that are used for augmentation and can be positioned either in front of or behind the muscle, implants used for breast reconstruction are almost always placed under the muscle, since the breast tissue has been removed. A few recontructive surgeons (very few!) prefer to place breast implants over the muscle. In this situation, rippling that develops may be improved or rectified by repositioning the implants beneath the muscle.

Add some fat. Depending on the circumstances, a few small injections of fat  liposuctioned from hips, thighs or stomach can make ripples less noticeable.

 
 
A newly-published study in the January issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (the official medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons) found that women who have breast reconstruction with their own tissues are more satisfied than women who have reconstruction using breast implants.

Although the study wasn't large--just 92 women who had reconstruction between 2006 and 2010--it's not the first time that women have expressed greater satisfaction when they have natural tissue reconstruction. This type of surgery is certainly more intensive, invasive and requires a longer recovery than reconstruction with implants, but it also produces breasts that look and feel more natural and don't have the inherent problems that come with breast implants (including eventual replacement).

In this study, 47 women had natural tissue reconstruction; most used their own abdominal tissue to recreate their breasts. The remaining 45 women had breast implants.

Here are some key results
(based on a 100-point scale) and differences between the two categories of women:

        Natural tissue reconstruction:

  • Average age: 51
  • Average overall satisfaction with breast reconstruction: 82
  • Average satisfaction with reconstructed breasts: 75
  • Reconstruction delayed an average of 21 months after mastectomy 
  • More likely to have radiation therapy
  • Higher average body weight

    Breast implant reconstruction:
  • Average age: 44
  • Average overall satisfaction with breast reconstruction: 74.5
  • Average satisfaction with reconstructed breasts: 65.5
  • Reconstruction performed immediately (with mastectomy)
  • Women were more likely to have bilateral reconstruction. (Many chose preventive double mastectomy to lower their high risk of breast cancer due to a BRCA gene mutation.)

    Study authors emphasized that both methods of breast reconstruction provided good outcomes, with similar scores for quality of life, and that complication rates were similar between groups, although the natural tissue reconstruction group had a higher rate of secondary corrective surgeries.







 
 
Discussions about whether or not women should have breast reconstruction after mastectomy are like politics: everyone has an opinion.

Navigate around the Internet for a bit and you'll find vehement blogs against reconstruction, arguing why women should stay flat after mastectomy. You'll also find the polar opposite view: strongly-worded positions in favor of breast reconstruction.

As women, we are all different. We have different goals, different likes and dislikes, and decidedly different
opinions of what is right for each of us. Some of us feel the breast reconstruction journey is worth the effort, and that is just fine. Others consider it a waste of time and effort, and that is also fine, because what is right for one isn't necessarily right for all.

Breast reconstruction is a deeply personal decision, no matter what the outcome. For many of us, the decision is an easy one, whether we decide to have our breasts recreated or not. For others, it's an emotionally difficult and confusing decision, and the answer doesn't always come easy.

Probably the best thing about breast reconstruction is that it is an option, meaning that each of us has the right to decide whether or not we want to have it, without others second-guessing or condemning our decisions. And that's why I appreciated "Why I Don't Miss My Breasts Anymore" by Kansas poet laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, as featured earlier this month on the Huffington Post. What is especially noteworthy about this post isn't that the author lost her breasts, chose not to have them rebuilt, and is okay with that decision, but how eloquently she speaks for us to understand and respect the decisions of others who find themselves in the same situation.

Breast reconstruction is not always a quick or easy decision---nor should it be. It should be the thoughtful result of carefully gathering information, understanding your options, and then (and only then) making an informed decision about what is right for you.






 
 

1.     Any plastic surgeon can perform breast reconstruction.
In most U.S. states, any licensed physician can perform plastic surgery, including breast reconstruction. But there are good reasons why you don’t want a hand surgeon or a cosmetic surgeon who rarely (or never) does breast reconstruction to do your procedure. Breast reconstruction is a specialized, artistic endeavor that requires a particular experience and skill. You’re more likely to be satisfied with your results when you choose a board-certified plastic surgeon who frequently performs the procedure you want, and who has a good track record of satisfied patients. Consulting with two or three (or more) reconstructive surgeons is a good idea before choosing one.

2.     Reconstruction makes it harder to find a recurring cancer.
Breast reconstruction has no impact on future cancers. Nor does it get in the way of detecting future cancers in the breast. Recurrence is unlikely after mastectomy, but leftover cancer cells can form a small tumor under the skin, near the mastectomy scar or in the little breast tissue that remains. A recurrence in the chest muscle is possible, but is even more unlikely.

3.     Breast reconstruction must be done with the mastectomy.
Although there are definite cosmetic advantages to having immediate breast reconstruction with mastectomy, delayed reconstruction can be performed months or even years after mastectomy. Immediate breast reconstruction has many advantages: it decreases visible scarring, saves most of the natural breast skin, and doesn’t require another surgery and recovery down the road to rebuild the breasts. For some women, nipple-sparing mastectomy is also an option; nipples and areola are typically removed if reconstruction is performed at the same time as the mastectomy.

4.     Implants are dangerous.
Breast implants carry inherent risks, including capsular contracture, rupture and the need for eventual replacement. But despite being studied more than any other medical device, no scientific study has found that breast implants cause illness. A 2011 FDA advisory identified a very small risk of anaplastic large cell lymphoma, a systemic disease that may occur in the surrounding scar tissue. The estimated risk for women with breast implants is just 60 cases among the 5 – 10 million women worldwide who have saline or silicone implants.

5.     Reconstructed breasts don’t look natural.
Breast reconstruction is a highly individual affair, and results are not always the same for every woman. The overall look of the new breasts depends on numerous factors: Your own tissue, the type of reconstruction you have, and most importantly, the expertise of your plastic surgeon. Whether you have implants or use your own tissue, advanced reconstructive techniques can produce new breasts that are symmetrical and look natural. Many women have reconstructed breasts that cannot be distinguished from natural breasts.

6.     Reconstructed breasts have no feeling.
During mastectomy, fine nerves beneath the skin that provide most breast sensation are severed when tissue is removed; this typically results in a loss of sensation over much of the front of the breast. Nerves do regenerate, particularly in women who have immediate reconstruction and retain most of their breast skin. The amount of sensation after reconstruction varies widely among women, but most women remain numb in much of the breast. Some feeling usually remains or reoccurs over time in the upper, outer and lower perimeters of the breast.

Women who have natural tissue reconstruction tend to regain more sensation than women who have breast implants, because nerve endings in the chest (if they are not damaged during mastectomy) sometimes spontaneously connect with nerve endings in the flap.

7.     Having chemotherapy or radiation for breast cancer delays breast reconstruction.
At one time, patients were routinely advised to delay their reconstruction until their radiation or chemotherapy was completed, but that’s no longer the case for most women. Chemotherapy doesn’t automatically mean you have to wait to have reconstruction, although if you are obese, smoke or have a health condition that threatens healing, your oncologist may recommend that you postpone your reconstruction until you complete your chemo regimen and your white count has recovered enough to have surgery.

Radiation makes breast reconstruction more difficult, but it doesn’t entirely preclude it. Radiation therapy tends degrade the blood flow and elasticity of the remaining chest tissue and muscle—that is why reconstruction with breast implants can be problematic after radiation therapy. (Although some surgeons are having good results by adding an acellular dermal matrix like Alloderm to replace missing breast tissue around the implant. Generally, natural tissue flaps are considered to be a better reconstructive option after radiation therapy.

8.     Something always goes wrong.
Any surgery has a potential for complications, and breast reconstruction is no exception. Most women who have breast reconstruction, however, do not experience problems. Serious problems are uncommon, but the risk of infection, a negative reaction to anesthesia, delayed wound healing, excessive bleeding, hematoma, seroma and an unsatisfactory cosmetic result are possibilities. (Another good reason to find a skilled and experienced surgeon for your procedure.)

9.     You have to live with your results, even if you don’t like them.
Ideally, your physician’s skill and your honest communication will result in breasts that look the way you want them too. But when that doesn’t happen on the first try, your new breasts can be made bigger, smaller, higher, lower, more symmetrical or better shaped. It often means another short trip to the OR, but most problems can be fixed.

10.  Insurance must pay
Federal law requires group health insurance plans that cover mastectomy to also pay for the costs of breast reconstruction, including the cost of procedures needed to produce a symmetrical appearance. The law does not require an insurer to pay for any surgeon or any procedure; an HMO, for example, can still require that you go to an in-network surgeon. (For more info on insurance, see the "Clarifying Your Legal Rights to Breast Reconstruction" blog dated 11/10/2014.)
 

 

 
 
We all know that women are at risk for breast cancer, but that threat extends to men as well, and it’s just as serious.

Women are about 100 times more likely to develop breast cancer as men.
The estimated lifetime risk (to age 80) is less than 1% for men, compared to about 12% for women. (The risk is greater for men who have a BRCA gene mutation: 2% with BRCA1, 8.4% with BRCA2.) Nevertheless, male breast cancer does occur. It’s more common in men over the age of 60, although males of any age can be diagnosed.

Because men have far less breast tissue than women, a man’s tumor tends to spread through a greater portion of the breast than the same size tumor in a woman. And that means that lumpectomy usually isn’t an option. Treatment for male breast cancer usually requires mastectomy. The nipple, areola and breast tissue, which lies almost completely beneath the nipple, is removed (a total mastectomy). Some underarm (axillary) lymph nodes may also be removed (a modified radical mastectomy) and tested to determine whether cancer has spread beyond the breast. Treatment may also include radiation therapy and chemotherapy, depending on the nature of the tumor.

Like mastectomy in women, the surgery leaves a diagonal or horizontal scar across the chest. Men don’t typically need reconstruction after mastectomy, because the amount of tissue removed isn’t usually enough to disfigure the breast. A small flap reconstruction is possible, particularly when removal of a tumor in the chest wall leaves a concave chest. Nipple reconstruction, if desired, is also an option. Some men find that having a tattoo that simulates the nipple and areola makes them feel visually more balanced when they’re shirtless.

Men interested in reconstruction should speak with a board-certified plastic surgeon who specializes in male breast reconstruction, if possible. Breast reconstruction in men is rare, however, so this might be difficult. In any case, it’s a good idea to find a surgeon who is experienced with breast reconstruction. It’s best to consult with a plastic surgeon before mastectomy, so that immediate reconstruction is an option, unless some other health issue precludes that. In that case, delayed reconstruction (at some time other than the mastectomy) is also an option.

A local or online men’s cancer group can address these concerns and help patients deal with diagnosis and treatment.

 
 
Follow-up to "Building a Better Mousetrap" posted June 2013.

The potential for a much improved method of tissue expansion as a part of breast reconstruction after mastectomy is closer to becoming a reality: interim data from studies of women who used AirXpanders for patient-controlled expansion continue to show promising outcomes compared to traditional saline expanders.

Most implant reconstruction involves the use of temporary expanders that gradually stretch the pectoralis muscle and breast skin to make enough room for an implant. The process typically takes several weeks (2 - 3 months), although some plastic surgeons proceed more conservatively (administering smaller and/or less frequent fills) or more aggressively (administering larger and/or more frequent fills).

AirXpanders introduce a kind of do-it-yourself expansion. They appear to produce similar results in a shorter timeframe, with less discomfort, and offer one big difference: the patient controls when, where and how much she is expanded, without needles or office visits. When the anatomically-shaped expander is in place under the muscle, patients use a wireless remote control to activate release of carbon dioxide from a small reservoir within the expander: up to three doses per day—each dose is 10cc—in their own home and at their own pace.

Study data presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) in October reflect much shorter start-to-finish expansion intervals with AirXpanders. Jeffrey A. Ascherman, MD, FACS of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, presented  interim results from the XPAND study in the U.S., which included 138 women with AirXpanders who completed their expansion process in an average of 18.2 days. Women who were randomized to receive traditional saline expanders required 57.4 days on average to complete the process. (Previously published results of a similar trial in Australia found an average completion time of 17 days.)

Enrollment in the EXPAND study has currently reached the target of 138, but AirXpanders is extending the enrollment period.
 
 
If you’re considering breast reconstruction after mastectomy, you’ll find an overwhelming amount of information on the Internet regarding insurance coverage. But be careful what you read, because not all of it is accurate.

You may already know that federal law ensures your right to breast reconstruction. What you may not know is that the law does not guarantee any type of reconstruction performed by any plastic surgeon in any location.

The Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act (WHCRA) was passed in 1998. For the first time, it required employer and union group health plans that pay for mastectomy (most do) to also cover the cost of breast prostheses and breast reconstruction. The law also applies to individual plans. (Employer group plans are regulated by the federal government; individual plans are governed by each state.) Prior to this law, 84% of plastic surgeons reported having patients who were denied coverage for breast reconstruction. Health insurance carriers often denied breast reconstruction after mastectomy, labeling it as “cosmetic surgery.”

Here’s a summary of what WHCRA does and does not stipulate, and what it means for health insurers and patients:

  • According to the law, health plans that cover breast reconstruction must provide a description of WHCRA benefits to all employees when they enroll in the plan.

  • If your health care policy covers mastectomy, it must also cover the cost of breast breast reconstruction. Certain “church plans” and “government plans” are not subject to the law.

  • Plans must cover the cost of both breast prostheses and reconstruction. So if you decide to forego reconstruction at the time of your mastectomy and use prostheses instead, your plan must pay for the breast forms. If you then decide to have breast reconstruction at some later time, your plan must provide payment for that procedure.

  • Coverage includes payment for all stages of breast reconstruction. If you have unilateral breast reconstruction, this includes surgical procedures (breast augmentation, lift or reduction) on the opposite healthy breast to achieve symmetry.

  • Plans must also cover the cost of treating physical complications, including lymphedema, which may develop as a result of mastectomy.

  • Your payment for reconstruction is limited to deductibles and coinsurance that are consistent with what you pay for other benefits under your healthcare plan.

  • WHCRA allows policies to fulfill these requirements within the tenets of its existing health care policies. That means if your policy requires you to use in-network physicians and hospitals, it may deny approval and payment for reconstruction involving surgeons or medical facilities outside that network. It may also deny certain reconstructive procedures that are not performed by its in-network surgeons. This is a part of the law that is seldom explained, and women are often shocked to find that their HMO will not pay for reconstruction by an out-of-network surgeon who is in another state or across the country.

Visit the Department of Labor’s website (www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/whcra.html) to access the text of the law and review a set of Q & A.

 
 
Women who face mastectomy have several options to have their breasts recreated. Not all women are candidates for all options, and not all surgeons perform all procedures.

If you’re considering reconstruction, your breasts can be recreated immediately (along with the mastectomy operation), or anytime down the road, even years later. Having immediate reconstruction has cosmetic benefits, however, and you don’t face another series of surgical procedures later.

Mastectomy without breast reconstruction    
  • Single surgery

  • Removes most breast skin
  • Removes nipples and areolae
  • Incisions visibly span chest

  • Flat chest after mastectomy

  • Overnight hospital
  • Relatively short recovery
Mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction
  • Two surgeries in one visit to the operating room
  • Retains most breast skin
  • May retain nipples and areola (nipple-sparing)
  • Incisions are minimized and may be hidden
  • New breast mounds after mastectomy
  • One or more days in the hospital
  • Extended recovery

Some reasons that women do not have immediate breast reconstruction include:

·      They're unsure about reconstruction at the time of their mastectomy.

·      They don't want to go through any more procedures than are necessary to  
        treat or prevent breast cancer.

·      They want to try breast prostheses (or none at all) before committing to 
        reconstructive surgery.

·      They have a health condition that adds to surgical risk and may impede  
        healing.

·      Their doctor advises them to complete radiation or other treatment before 
        having breast reconstruction.

 
 

Studies show that most women who face mastectomy are uninformed about their post-surgery options, including breast reconstruction. And all too often, those who are told about reconstruction don’t know about all the options that are available to them, or the benefits and limitations of different reconstructive procedures.

National Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day was established to educate and create awareness about post-mastectomy options. It’s a coordinated, national effort to provide the answers women need to make informed decisions regarding whether they should or shouldn’t have breast reconstruction, and if they do, what options and patient rights are available to them.

National BRA Day is a collaborative effort between the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, The Plastic Surgery Foundation, plastic surgeons, breast centers, corporate sponsors and breast cancer support groups around the country. These individuals and groups, along with breast cancer patients, coordinate events that include question-and-answer sessions, educational lectures, forums, and other activities and community events in support of breast reconstruction awareness. It’s also a great opportunity to meet and talk with women who have been through mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

This year, National BRA day falls on Saturday, October 15.

Click here to learn more about National BRA Day and find activities in different states (not all activities are listed here, so be sure to check your local breast cancer organizations as well). National BRA day in Canada is also held on October 15. You'll find additional information by searching Facebook for "BRA Day."