Breast reconstruction surgery is a personal choice for women who undergo surgery as part of their breast cancer treatment. If you choose to pursue breast reconstruction, there are many options for you to consider, including the timing of your reconstruction and which technique is best for you. Many factors play a role in that decision including:
- the stage of your cancer
- whether your treatment includes radiation therapy and chemotherapy
- the presence of other medical conditions like diabetes
- your individual goals and desired results
Your plastic surgeon helps you make these decisions. As part of your breast cancer team, we work closely with you, your medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, and surgical oncologist. We explain how we develop your personalized treatment plan and are always available to answer your questions.
Immediate or Delayed Breast Reconstruction
When breast reconstruction is performed immediately after a lumpectomy, your plastic surgeon will rearrange the remaining breast tissue and optimize the breast shape, typically by performing a breast lift or a breast reduction. This option may be available if you have small localized tumors.
When breast reconstruction is performed immediately following a mastectomy, your plastic surgeon will fill the empty space where the breast tissue was removed with a tissue expander, an implant, or a tissue flap.
Benefits of Immediate Breast Reconstruction
Choosing immediate breast reconstruction has several benefits including:
- preserving the skin in a breast shape
- a psychological sense of wholeness
- the ability to fill clothes without the need for an external prosthesis.
Delayed Breast Reconstruction
Some women choose to delay breast reconstruction for months or years after breast cancer treatment ends. They may not be ready to commit to immediate breast reconstruction and the complexity it adds to their breast cancer care. You can arrange an appointment with your plastic surgeon for delayed reconstruction at your convenience.
Breast Reconstruction Following Radiation and Chemotherapy
The use of chemotherapy and/or radiation to treat aggressive tumors can impact the type of reconstruction options available to you. This is because radiation therapy can damage the breast skin, which makes implant reconstruction challenging. If you are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy, your plastic surgeon will help you determine the best timing and choose an option that is right for you.
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Breast Reconstruction with Implants
Silicone or saline implants may be used to replace the entire breast following mastectomy, and to enhance the breast size and shape.
Overall, implant surgery is associated with shorter surgeries and hospital stays than tissue flap surgery, which is described below. However, it can be a challenge to match a natural breast on the opposite side with an implant. It’s also important to note that the quality of implant reconstruction is usually dependent on the quality of the skin that remains after the mastectomy. Your surgeon will discuss your implant options and help you determine if this approach is right for you.
Direct to Implant Reconstruction
In certain circumstances, your plastic surgeon will replace the breast tissue with a silicone or saline implant at the same time as your mastectomy. Since implants are not adjustable after surgery, this limits the option of changing the breast size. Your surgeon will discuss the pros and cons of this approach when you consider your options.
Breast Reconstruction with Tissue Expander
At the time of the mastectomy, your plastic surgeon will place a temporary tissue expander to hold the breast skin in breast shape. The expander is filled with saline in the office to increase its size. In general, tissue expanders give your plastic surgeon more flexibility when it comes to your reconstruction. The final implant is placed about three months later. This two-staged approach is very common. It can also be done years after a woman has undergone a mastectomy.
Fat Grafting Breast Reconstruction with Implants
Fat grafting uses liposuction to transfer fat from another part of your body, such as your abdomen or buttocks. Your breast reconstruction surgeon may use this method and other plastic surgical techniques, such as breast reduction or breast lift to create symmetry between your breasts.
Breast Reconstruction Flap
Autologous breast reconstruction uses your own skin, fat, blood vessels, and sometimes muscle from other parts of your body to create a breast mound that has a more natural look and feel than implants. Also called flap surgery, it can be done:
- immediately after the mastectomy to replace a tissue expander
- many years after the mastectomy
- following radiation therapy
- to replace implants that are not working well
DIEP Flap Breast Reconstruction
The most common type of breast reconstruction flap surgery performed at Duke is the DIEP flap. This refers to tissue that is taken from the lower belly and moved up to the chest to recreate the breast mound.
Benefits of DIEP Flap Breast Reconstruction
The DIEP flap preserves the abdominal muscles that allow you to recover faster, and with a lower risk of losing core muscle strength. This is an important distinction from TRAM flap reconstruction, which removes abdominal muscle as well as abdominal tissue. DIEP flap breast reconstruction also leaves you with a flatter tummy, similar to the results of a tummy tuck.
Advanced Surgical Skills Required
DIEP flap breast reconstruction is an intricate surgery that requires advanced microsurgical skills to successfully move blood vessels from one area of the body to another. Our breast reconstruction surgeons have advanced training in microsurgery and specialize in DIEP flap breast reconstruction. This microsurgical skill is also important when other tissue flaps are used in breast reconstruction.
Other Tissues May Be Used for Flap Breast Reconstruction
If you do not have enough abdominal tissue, flap breast reconstruction may be performed with tissue from the buttocks (SGAP flap), the backside of the upper thigh (PAP flap), the inner thigh (TUG /DUG / VUG flap) or the back muscle (Lat dorsi/TDAP flap). In some cases, your surgeon may recommend using two flaps for one breast. This may be done if extra tissue is needed to fill the breast mound.
Success Rate, Complications
Overall, breast reconstruction flap surgery at Duke has a 98 percent success rate. In rare cases, the flap does not receive adequate blood flow and the tissue must be removed. Other risks of surgery include infection and slow wound healing. As part of your breast cancer team, we meet with you regularly after your surgery to ensure you are healing appropriately. We are on the lookout for any complications that may arise so we can treat them immediately.
Additional Surgeries May Be Needed
No matter what type of reconstructive procedure you undergo, there is a good chance that secondary revision surgery will be needed. It may be difficult to achieve your goals in one surgery. Typically it takes two or three procedures performed over a one-year time period to achieve the final result. We work with you and your schedule to achieve realistic goals in the safest manner possible.
Learn more about your breast reconstruction options in our monthly information session.
Sensory Restoration and Nipple Reconstruction
Sensory Restoration with Nerve Reconstruction
Following a mastectomy, it is common for women to lose feeling within the breast area. Our plastic surgeons use microsurgical techniques to perform nerve reconstruction when possible. Talk to your doctor during your consultation to see if this is an option for you.
Nipple and Areola Reconstruction
When possible, you can have a “nipple-sparing” mastectomy. When that is not possible, we use a variety of techniques to reconstruct the nipple and areola. They include surgical creation of a projecting nipple, skin grafting, and skin tattooing. Nipple and areola reconstruction are typically done at the end of the reconstruction process. Our team includes several experienced specialists in nipple and areola tattooing.
Breast Reconstruction Hospital Stay and Recovery
Hospital stays and recovery periods vary by procedure.
- A mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction with a tissue expander or implant involves an overnight hospital stay; recovery will take about four weeks.
- A mastectomy and flap breast reconstruction involves a three- to a four-day hospital stay. Recovery will take about six to eight weeks.
- Delayed breast reconstruction with flap surgery involves a three-to four-day hospital stay, followed by a six-week recovery.
- Delayed breast reconstruction with a tissue expander and implant is an outpatient procedure. Recovery takes about three weeks.
- Revisions, fat grafting, and nipple reconstruction are typically performed as outpatient procedures, followed by a two-week recovery.
Surgical Drains Are Needed
Most breast reconstruction procedures require a surgical drain to be placed to remove fluid from the surgical area after the procedure. Surgical drains may remain in place for two to three weeks after surgery.
Enhanced Recovery After Surgery
We are leaders in developing new ways to make the surgical experience more tolerable. For breast flap procedures we've implemented a proven process to help you leave the hospital sooner and recover faster. It also reduces the need for opioids. The process involves implementing a variety of pain control methods including nerve block techniques before and after surgery, allowing you to eat and move immediately after surgery. It has dramatically improved the recovery process following flap breast reconstruction.
Where you receive your cancer care is important. Duke University Hospital's cancer program is ranked among the nation's best by U.S. News & World Report for 2019–2020.