Advances in Post Mastectomy Breast Reconstruction: Nipple Preservation

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Plastic Surgeon and Breast Reconstruction Specialist Dr. Constance Chen Offers Practical Tips.

Dr. Constance Chen

For women with no indication of disease in or near the nipple, a nipple-sparing mastectomy essentially eliminates the risk of breast cancer and offers the opportunity for state-of-the-art breast reconstruction that maintains both the woman's health and her sense of self.

Mastectomy has changed a great deal over the years. Long gone are the radical mastectomies of your grandmother's day which removed not only breast tissue but also extensive breast skin, lymph nodes, and underlying chest muscles. By the 1980s, the most common approach was the modified radical mastectomy, which left the chest muscles intact. Since then, the standard mastectomy is the simple mastectomy in which all of the chest muscles, most if not all of the lymph nodes, and most recently, the nipple and areola complex are all preserved. When combined with an immediate breast reconstruction at the time of the mastectomy, these techniques produce a superior cosmetic result while eliminating diseased tissue. “Nipple-sparing mastectomy has become more widespread as more breast surgeons realize the importance of the nipple-areola complex to patients after surgery.” says plastic surgeon and breast specialist Dr. Constance M. Chen, “Looking and feeling normal and whole improves self-esteem both for women who are losing a breast to cancer and for those who are considering prophylactic (or preventive) mastectomy because they are at high risk for breast cancer due to family history or because they carry a genetic mutation.”
Women who are considering skin and nipple-sparing surgery must be evaluated for factors such as the size, location, and nature of the cancer to ensure that they are good candidates for the procedure. Imaging and examination are performed to look for tumor in the nipple and to rule out symptoms such as nipple discharge that might indicate the presence of disease in the nipple. During surgery, all breast tissue is removed and the breast specimen is submitted to pathology to ensure that there are no cancer cells in or near the skin and nipple complex. Nipple preservation is possible with both small and large breasts and can be used when reconstruction is to be either with implants or with a woman's own tissue (“autologous reconstruction”).
The primary benefits of skin and nipple preservation are the superior aesthetic outcome and the resulting psychological boost. The combination of skin and nipple preservation with autologous reconstruction produces a soft, warm, natural breast that may be difficult to distinguish from the woman's original breast.
The risk of breast cancer is considerably greater for women who inherit a genetic mutation, such as the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, that makes a woman more likely to develop breast cancer. As more women become aware of their risk, those who test positive for the harmful mutations face the difficult decision of whether to reduce their risk by undergoing bilateral prophylactic mastectomy – preventive removal of both breasts. These women may wonder if surgery that conserves the nipple will leave in place breast tissue that might be subject to cancer. The experience of thousands of women and their healthcare providers has been that nipple-sparing mastectomy is safe for women with genetic mutations and a major study in 2017 confirmed that prophylactic surgery essentially eliminates the risk of cancer with or without breast reconstruction.
(Oncologic Safety of Prophylactic Nipple-Sparing Mastectomy in a Population With BRCA Mutations” by Jakub et al, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September 2017.) The report concludes that nipple-sparing mastectomies are “highly preventive” against breast cancer in a BRCA population.

For women with no indication of disease in or near the nipple, including those with BRCA mutations, a nipple-sparing mastectomy essentially eliminates the risk of breast cancer and offers the opportunity for state-of-the-art breast reconstruction that maintains both the woman's health and her sense of self.

Constance M. Chen, MD, is a board-certified plastic surgeon with special expertise in the use of innovative natural techniques to optimize medical and cosmetic outcomes for women undergoing breast reconstruction. She is Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Weill Cornell Medical College and Clinical Assistant Professor of Surgery (Plastic Surgery) at Tulane University School of Medicine. http://www.constancechenmd.com

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