Q: My friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and is very concerned about maintaining her sense of femininity. What are her options?
A: According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women in the United States, other than skin cancer. It is estimated that approximately 110,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer opt to have a mastectomy (removal of the breast).
Astonishingly, 70% of American women facing surgery for breast cancer are not aware of the options for breast reconstruction. Breast reconstruction is a surgical procedure performed by plastic surgeons that rebuilds the natural volume, shape and symmetry of a woman’s breast after breast cancer surgery.
Perhaps one of the best things about breast reconstruction is that it can be performed at any time. Regardless of the timing of the procedure, breast reconstruction enables women to feel whole again, not just physically, but also emotionally.
There are many reconstructive options ranging from breast implants to using the patient’s own tissue.
Breast reconstruction can be performed at the same time as the mastectomy (“immediate reconstruction”) or any time after mastectomy (“delayed reconstruction”). When the mastectomy and reconstruction are performed at the same time, a skin-sparing mastectomy can usually be performed which saves most of the natural breast skin envelope. Only the actual breast tissue under the skin is removed. The reconstruction then “fills” this empty skin envelope.
Skin-sparing mastectomy and immediate breast reconstruction can produce a very “natural” result. Patients undergoing immediate reconstruction avoid the experience of a flat chest altogether. When possible, immediate reconstruction is often the goal for patients with early breast cancer (stage I or II).
In some cases breast reconstruction cannot be performed at the same time as the mastectomy. Reasons include advanced breast cancer (stage III or IV), inflammatory breast cancer, and plans for radiation therapy after mastectomy, or lack of access to a reconstructive plastic surgeon.
Unfortunately, many women are not made aware of their breast reconstruction options when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. Many are also not aware that these procedures are covered by their health insurance. I strongly encourage all women interested in breast reconstruction to research their options and seek a referral or consultation with a plastic surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction.