More than 296,000 American women face breast cancer each year. The emotional and physical effects of breast cancer treatment are very different today than what they were in the past. Society is much more open about breast cancer and it is no longer a taboo subject. We now know much more about what breast cancer patients are coping with, and new treatments as well as improved reconstructive surgery allow women to have better choices. If you’ve had — or are facing — a mastectomy, you are probably considering whether or not to choose reconstructive surgery to rebuild the shape and look of your breasts. Breast reconstruction can help your chest look balanced when you’re wearing a bra or swimsuit, eliminates the need for a prosthesis, helps you permanently regain your breast shape, and can help you improve your body image and self-esteem after breast cancer.
Discuss Your Options with Your Surgeon
If you’re thinking about having reconstructive surgery after your mastectomy, you should talk to your surgical oncologist and a plastic surgeon with specific expertise in breast reconstruction. This discussion should happen before your mastectomy so that the surgical team can plan the best treatment for you, even if you want to wait and have reconstructive surgery later. There are many options to think about as you and your doctors talk about what’s best for you. Your plastic surgeon should explain all of the benefits and risks of reconstruction so that you can make the best decision.
Immediate Breast Reconstruction
Based on different factors of your health, breast surgeons either suggest immediate reconstruction, or delayed reconstruction after you have healed from cancer surgery. Immediate breast reconstruction is done, or at least started, at the same time as the mastectomy. Immediate reconstruction means less surgery. After the first surgery, a number of steps still may be needed to complete the immediate reconstruction process. Your surgeon can explain what will need to be done afterward and how long it will take.
Delayed Breast Reconstruction
If you opt to delay your breast reconstruction, the rebuilding will be started later. This is sometimes a better choice for women who need radiation to the chest area or chemotherapy after the mastectomy. Radiation or chemotherapy given after breast reconstruction surgery can cause problems like delayed healing and scarring, loss of volume, change in color and texture. Also, some women simply don’t want to think about reconstruction while coping with a diagnosis of cancer. If this is the case, you might choose to wait until after your breast cancer surgery and subsequent treatment to decide about reconstruction.
Other factors may influence whether or not you are a candidate for immediate or delayed breast reconstruction. Your doctors will take into consideration your overall health, the stage of your breast cancer, the size of your natural breast and the amount of tissue available.
What to Expect from Breast Reconstruction
An experienced plastic surgeon who has performed many breast reconstructive surgeries will be able to work with you to develop a treatment plan that helps you achieve your desired results. He will discuss with you the types of procedures that are right for your particular situation, the size of the implants to be used and whether or not you want to reshape the remaining breast to match the reconstructed breast. That could mean reducing or enlarging the size of the unaffected breast, or even a breast lift. Ask your plastic surgeon to show you pictures of the results of the different types of reconstruction that you are considering.
Selecting a Plastic Surgeon for Your Breast Reconstruction
Reconstructing the breast after mastectomy requires a specific skill set and specialized knowledge. Choose a surgeon who is board certified by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and who has performed the procedure many times. But, you also need a plastic surgeon who is caring, compassionate and who knows what you have gone through, and what you continue to experience as a cancer patient and survivor. At this time in your life, you need a plastic surgeon you can trust, that you can talk to, who listens, and who explains very carefully what you can expect. Think about what’s important to you when considering how your breasts will look after cancer. In many cases, women like their breast size and shape better after reconstruction. Reconstruction can help you feel whole again.