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Breast Reconstruction and Your Cancer Treatment

female cancer patient depressed (1)Women facing a life-threatening breast cancer diagnosis often develop complicated feelings about their breasts and their physical appearance. You may even feel that your body has betrayed you. These feelings are valid. As you come to terms with the physical impact of breast cancer and consider treatment options, remember that your mental health and inner healing are as important as your physical well-being. Restoring body confidence can take time, but many women go on to develop a renewed sense of who they truly are with the support of a compassionate and experienced cancer treatment team.

When should you consider breast reconstruction?

The weeks following a breast cancer diagnosis are overwhelming. You are likely worried about the impact of your illness on your loved ones, and many of the decisions that affect your family can seem out of your control. Being confident in the skills and expertise of your treatment team is an important first step. With this in mind, it’s important to find trusted oncologists and a breast surgeon who can help you begin to imagine life after cancer.

“Your first priority is treating the cancer,” says Dr. Eric Wimmers, a plastic surgeon at the Institute for Advanced Reconstruction specializing in microsurgical breast reconstruction. “But your pathway to reconstruction begins on the day of your mastectomy. Ideally, the plastic surgeon is present at the mastectomy to help preserve as much native breast skin as possible, so you have more feeling and sensation." The placement of a flat tissue expander during your initial surgery also helps ensure the best options and outcomes for future breast reconstruction after a mastectomy

How long after cancer treatment can you have breast reconstruction?

Each patient’s breast cancer treatment plan is unique. Some decisions can’t be made until after the cancerous tissue is removed and a pathology report is completed. Whether you undergo a surgical excision (lumpectomy, mastectomy), chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of treatments, the guidance of a board-certified plastic surgeon can help you consider your personal goals and options each step of the way.

Breast reconstruction is typically performed 3-12 months following a mastectomy, depending on the extent of chemotherapy and radiation required. The procedure is often considered medically necessary by insurance providers for the augmentation and reshaping of one or both breasts to restore a natural breast profile. Breast reconstruction may include the placement of saline implants or a more extensive autologous reconstruction (DIEP Flap procedure) using your own tissue, often skin and fat from the lower abdomen, to reconstruct the shape of your breast. 

Does radiation affect breast implants?

Radiation can potentially affect breast implants by causing changes to the implant's structure or integrity. High levels of radiation exposure can lead to implant hardening, scarring, or rupture. However, the impact of radiation on breast implants depends on various factors, including the type of implant, radiation dosage, and individual patient characteristics.

The best options for your breast reconstruction will depend on your cancer treatment plan and any other health-related issues. Autologous reconstruction is often recommended for women who have had radiation or who may need radiation in the future, as your body’s natural tissue is more resilient against the effects of radiation. But the surgery itself is considerably more extensive when fat/skin/tissue are removed from the abdomen, so if there are potential health complications related to a long surgery, the simpler implant procedure may be ideal. 

What should you expect after a breast reconstruction procedure?

woman examining breast implants (1)Recovery time is important when determining which reconstructive option is best for you. After several weeks of gradual tissue expansion, using the expander placed during your mastectomy, the placement of silicone implants is a relatively simple procedure. Patients can expect to return home and perform moderate levels of activity following breast implants. In contrast, transferring natural tissue from another part of your body requires a 3-day hospital stay and a more extensive recovery process.

It may be helpful to talk with other women who have gone through similar procedures — including cancer treatment operation, reconstruction, and the emotional and physical healing process. Attending a support group, such as those offered by your cancer treatment provider or our Institute’s Center for Breast Reconstruction, will help align your inner healing with your body’s physical recovery. 

Discuss breast reconstruction with your cancer care team, or visit us online to learn more about your options.