Immediate vs Delayed Breast Reconstruction: What is Right for You?

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

Dr. Constance Chen

With proper planning before mastectomy, breast reconstruction can be done with excellent results months or even years later.

Among the many medical, personal, and financial decisions a woman must make following a diagnosis of breast cancer and the need for a mastectomy are decisions about breast reconstruction. Does she want reconstruction? What kind? When? With so many questions coming at her, some women are relieved to learn that the decision about reconstruction is one that doesn't have to be made right away. “With proper planning before mastectomy, breast reconstruction can be done with excellent results months or even years later,” says plastic surgeon and breast specialist Dr. Constance M. Chen. “That said, there are advantages to immediate reconstruction – in a single surgery at the time of mastectomy – and every woman should be made aware of all the factors involved and given the opportunity to decide what is best for her.”

Both immediate and delayed reconstruction are viable options whether the woman opts for implant-based breast reconstruction or natural tissue breast reconstruction (also known as “autologous reconstruction,” because it uses a woman's own tissue to create her new breast). While many women see implants as the quickest, simplest reconstructive option, controversy about the long-term safety of implants has led more and more women to consider natural tissue breast reconstruction, which many consider to be the “gold standard” in breast reconstruction. Dr. Chen explains the advantages: “Along with nipple preservation and techniques that reduce scarring, autologous reconstruction can deliver a soft, warm, natural breast that is similar to a woman's original breast. In natural tissue breast reconstruction, the reconstructed breast is living so it grows and shrinks as the patient gains and loses weight. Furthermore, new advances also make it possible to reconnect nerves and restore feeling to the reconstructed breast.”

Whichever type of reconstruction is chosen, there are many factors that affect the timing of reconstructive surgery, including a woman's age, the stage of her disease, her general physical condition, and her treatment plan. For example, women who will need post-mastectomy radiation therapy and want natural tissue breast reconstruction are best served by delaying autologous reconstruction. She can undergo either tissue expander breast reconstruction or no reconstruction at the time of mastectomy, and then undergo autologous reconstruction after radiation therapy is completed to avoid radiating and damaging the healthy new tissue in her reconstructed breast. “This decision should be discussed with her medical team as early as possible,” says Dr. Chen. “If, after weighing all the factors, it is determined that a woman is a good candidate for immediate reconstruction, she can then examine the pros and cons of each approach.”

Immediate reconstruction
Immediate reconstruction is performed in a single surgery at the time of the mastectomy. After the cancerous breast tissue is removed, the reconstructive surgeon fashions the new breast, either with an implant or with tissue from another part of the woman's body, most frequently the abdomen. When she awakes after surgery, she has a new breast, which for many women can be an important factor in her psychological and emotional recovery. Additional advantages include the fact that she must undergo just one major surgery and hospitalization, which has financial implications and accelerates the sense that she is putting breast cancer behind her. “Another important consideration is that it is sometimes easier to achieve a satisfactory aesthetic result with immediate reconstruction,” says Dr. Chen. “The combination of skin- and nipple-sparing techniques with immediate reconstruction produce the best possible cosmetic result.”

One disadvantage of immediate reconstruction is that while it entails only a single surgery, it is a more complex surgical procedure with a longer hospital stay and recovery period. Also, because mastectomy is often time sensitive, there is less time for a woman to think through what kind of reconstruction she wants or whether she wants reconstruction at all.

Delayed reconstruction
Since delayed reconstruction can be performed months or even years after her mastectomy, a woman can complete all other treatments and give plenty of time to her decisions about whether or how to have reconstruction. She might also consider that her initial mastectomy will be a simpler procedure and she'll recover more quickly.

The primary disadvantage of delayed reconstruction is that she will require a second surgery and hospitalization. The scarring from the mastectomy may also limit options for reconstruction. Also, since the breast skin will shrink after mastectomy, the shape and size of the original breast will be lost and sometimes it is difficult to remove skin creases that have developed.

“We want every woman to understand the options available to her and make the decision that is best for her,” says Dr. Chen. “Surgical techniques have come a long way and we can assure every woman that whatever choice she makes, we can help her achieve the best possible result and reconfirm her sense of self as she puts breast cancer behind her.”

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.

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