Breast reconstruction can help restore the look and feel of the breast after a mastectomy. Performed by a plastic surgeon, breast reconstruction can be done at the same time as the mastectomy ("immediate") or at a later date ("delayed").
Many women now get immediate breast reconstruction. However, the timing depends on:
Not all women can have immediate reconstruction.
It is important to discuss your options with your plastic surgeon, breast surgeon and oncologist (and your radiation oncologist if you are having radiation therapy).
Breast reconstruction can help you feel more comfortable about how you look.
Although a reconstructed breast may never match the look or feel of your natural breast, this area of plastic surgery continues to improve.
Breast reconstruction can be done with:
There is no one best reconstruction method. There are pros and cons to each. For example, breast implants require less invasive surgery than procedures using your own body tissues, but the results may look and feel less natural .
Your body shape and anatomy may affect the types of breast reconstruction likely to give you the best results. For example, women with larger breasts may need breast reduction surgery on the opposite, natural breast to create a more even look.
Your lifestyle may also affect the type of reconstruction you choose. For example, some types use muscles from other parts of the body, causing weakness in the area. These may not be good options for athletic women.
Your plastic surgeon will help you choose the type of reconstruction that will give you the best results and fit with your lifestyle.
Take the time to study your options and make a thoughtful, informed choice. Although this decision may seem overwhelming, it may help to know that most women who have had breast reconstruction do not regret the method they chose .
There are fairly few complications with any of the current techniques, especially when a woman is a good candidate for a selected procedure.
Most breast reconstruction methods involve several steps. Both immediate and delayed reconstructions require a hospital stay for the first procedure. Follow-up procedures may be done on an outpatient basis.
Smokers and women who are overweight have an increased risk of complications for all types of breast reconstructive surgery [13,111-113].
If you smoke or are overweight, talk with your plastic surgeon about problems after surgery such as wound healing, infection, reconstruction failure and problems with implant or flap procedures that may occur.
Sometimes, delayed breast reconstruction after quitting smoking or weight loss is preferred to lower the risks of these problems. Your plastic surgeon may discuss ways to quit smoking and/or lose weight before you have reconstruction.
The table below compares the basic types of breast reconstruction. Specific types of reconstruction are discussed in more detail below.
Natural tissue flaps
Looks and feels like a natural breast
Less able to mimic the look and feel of a natural breast (silicone implants look and feel more natural than saline implants)
Better able to mimic the look and feel of a natural breast
Loss of sensation
Will likely lose some sensation in the breast
Will likely lose some sensation in the breast and tissue donation site
Time in surgery is shorter
Time in surgery is longer
Is a hospital stay needed?
Will the procedure need to be repeated?
Implants may need to be replaced during your lifetime.
Tissue flaps will not need to be replaced during your lifetime. However, if there are complications, some procedures cannot be repeated.
Risk of complications
Some risk of surgical complications
Some risk of surgical complications (certain procedures have more risks than others)
Adapted from selected sources [109,114].
Inserting a breast implant is a fairly simple procedure. It may not require extra hospital time if it can be done at the same time as the mastectomy.
The shape of the reconstructed breast with an implant may not look or feel quite like the natural, opposite breast, especially as you age and your natural breast changes shape. For this reason, implants are better for women with small or medium-sized breasts with little or no sagging .
It is possible to have surgery to enlarge or reduce the size of the opposite, natural breast to help make both breasts look more alike.
However, the natural breast will change in size and shape with weight changes and as a woman grows older, while the breast with the implant will not. This may lead to a less even look over time. More surgery may be needed to maintain a similar look.
There are two basic types of breast implants: saline and silicone.
For both saline and silicone implants, the outer cover of the implant (also called the implant shell) is made of a solid form of silicone. The two types of implants differ in the substance used to fill the implant shell.
Saline implants are filled with saline, a saltwater solution similar to that found in IV fluids. Saline implants come deflated and during surgery, are filled up to the desired volume.
Silicone implants are filled with silicone gel, a semi-solid substance made from silicone. They come pre-filled with the desired volume.
Different implant shapes are available to match the look of the natural breast. Implants can be round or teardrop-shaped and vary in the amount of projection and base width. The best implant shape and size will depend on:
In the past, there were concerns that silicone implants might cause health problems. However, research clearly shows no link between silicone implants and lupus, immune system disorders, connective tissue disease or rheumatoid arthritis .
Silicone implants are a safe option to saline implants.
The FDA is looking into a link between breast implants (both saline and silicone) and a slight increase in the risk of anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL). ALCL is a very rare form of cancer of the cells of the immune system (occurs in breast tissue in about 3 in 100 million women) [116-118].
Inserting a breast implant (saline or silicone) is a fairly simple process.
Step one: A temporary, modified saline device (called a tissue expander) is inserted in the envelope formed by the breast skin and chest muscle. The expander has a valve that allows more saline to be added (with a simple injection through the skin into the valve) after surgery.
Step two: Over a period of 2-6 months (in repeated office visits), the skin-muscle envelope is slowly stretched by injecting more saline into the expander until it reaches the desired size of the final implant. The final volume may be limited by the quality and size of the skin-muscle envelope.
Step three: A surgeon removes the expander and replaces it with the permanent implant (saline or silicone). This is done in an operating room, but is usually an outpatient surgery.
Some women do not need tissue expansion and can have an implant (saline or silicone) directly inserted at the time of mastectomy. In these women, the size of the skin-muscle envelope at the time of the mastectomy is large enough to cover the desired final implant.
For example, women who have moderate-sized breasts or excess natural breast skin, or who want to have a reconstruction that is smaller than their natural breast size may be good candidates for direct implant insertion. However, these cases are exceptions rather than the rule.
The size of a reconstructed breast cannot be changed without surgery to replace the implant. However, changes in weight can impact the look of the breast with an implant. Weight gain may make the breast with an implant appear smaller. Weight loss may make it appear fuller.
The acellular dermis technique takes advantage of the entire skin envelope available at the time of the mastectomy . It is often used in combination with an implant reconstruction.
This technique creates a hammock under the mastectomy skin envelope to hold the expander or implant in place.
The hammock is made from biologic material (called acellular dermal matrix) alone or in combination with your chest muscle. Most often, the biologic material is donated human skin. Acellular means that the human cells that may lead to tissue rejection have been removed.
During the healing process, the hammock gets a blood supply from the overlying skin and soft tissue envelope and becomes part of your own tissue. This strengthens the support for the expander or implant.
Implant reconstruction with acellular dermal matrix can allow a larger volume fill at the time of surgery. This can shorten the implant expansion process so the final implant procedure can occur sooner.
The use of acellular dermal matrix can allow for a single-step implant process. The final implant can be placed at the time of the mastectomy without the need for expansion.
However, some findings show acellular dermal matrix may have a higher risk of complications compared to the multiple-step implant method using a tissue expander .
Not all women can have the acellular dermal matrix technique (depending on the quality of the mastectomy skin envelope and whether there is enough of a skin envelope for the procedure).
Talk with your plastic surgeon to find out if this procedure may be right for you.
Reconstruction of the nipple may be done when the permanent implant is inserted or at a later time.
Learn more about nipple and areola reconstruction.
There are pros and cons to each type of implant. These are described in the table below.
Discuss your options with your plastic surgeon to choose the type that is best for you.
Feels like a natural breast
Less able to mimic the feel of a natural breast (may feel like a water balloon)
More likely to see rippling or an uneven contour (especially is the skin-muscle envelope is thin)
Better able to mimic the feel of a natural breast
Less likely to see rippling or an uneven contour
Can the size of the expander or implant be changed?
Size of the expander may be increased or decreased after the initial surgery
Size of the implant cannot be changed without surgery to replace the implant
Size of the implant cannot be changed without surgery to replace the implant
Risk of rupture
Equal chance of rupture
What happens if rupture occurs?
The saline is absorbed harmlessly into nearby tissues. The reconstructed breast appears deflated, so you know right away the implant has ruptured.
The implant should be replaced before the entire surgical pocket that holds the implant has collapsed. This requires surgery.
Some silicone gel might leak into the soft tissue pocket around the implant and rest there. Since the silicone is not absorbed, the overall breast volume stays the same. So, a rupture in a silicone implant may take longer to be detected than a rupture in a saline implant. (Breast MRI can be used to check for implant rupture.)
Side effects that may occur with the implant procedure
Typically lasts at least 10 years, but will likely need to be replaced during lifetime (replacement requires surgery)
Adapted from selected sources [109,120].
Radiation therapy can cause problems (such as changes in skin color, skin quality and tissue shrinkage and tightness) for both implant and natural tissue reconstruction.
If you will have an implant procedure using a tissue expander and radiation therapy will be used after mastectomy, immediate rather than delayed breast reconstruction is recommended .
Delayed breast reconstruction using an implant may not be possible after radiation therapy. Skin that has received radiation and is later stretched to fit an implant is at high risk for complications and a poor cosmetic result [13,109].
Results are better when the procedures to expand the skin are done before radiation therapy begins.
Reconstruction that uses skin and soft tissue flaps from your own body tends to look and feel more like a natural breast than reconstruction with implants.
However, these procedures are more complex and invasive, and usually require a longer hospital stay and post-surgery recovery time. They also leave scars in the area of the body where the tissue was taken (donor site).
The most common natural flap procedures use tissue from the back, abdomen, buttocks or thighs.
In some procedures, part or all of a muscle needs to be taken to provide blood flow to the flap tissue. This may cause weakness in that area of the body and limit certain physical or athletic activities. If you are active, discuss this risk with your plastic surgeon.
The latissimus dorsi muscle flap procedure removes a large muscle in the back along with skin and underlying fatty tissue and uses these tissues to reconstruct the breast .
Using fatty tissue helps create a more natural looking breast. In most women, the amount of soft tissue available on the back is limited and the flap itself is only about one inch thick. Therefore, an implant is usually needed in addition to the latissimus flap to create enough volume for the reconstructed breast.
The soft tissue of the latissimus flap goes over the implant so the look and feel of the breast is more natural than with an implant alone.
The transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous (TRAM) flap uses skin, fat and muscle from the lower abdomen to reconstruct the breast . It creates a natural-looking breast.
A TRAM flap usually does not require an implant as long as there is enough excess skin and fatty tissue in the lower abdomen. If you do not have excess abdomen tissue, you may not be a candidate for a TRAM flap reconstruction.
The TRAM flap has some drawbacks.
Breast reconstruction with a deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap uses skin and fatty tissue from the lower abdomen to form the reconstructed breast .
Unlike the TRAM flap, the DIEP flap procedure keeps the abdominal muscle intact. This may preserve abdominal strength after the procedure.
The DIEP flap has some drawbacks.
The DIEP flap procedure should only be done by microvascular surgeons who are well-trained and experienced with this technique.
The superficial inferior epigastric artery (SIEA) flap breast reconstruction uses skin, fatty tissue and blood vessels (including the superficial inferior epigastric artery) from the abdomen to form the reconstructed breast.
The SIEA flap is not as common as the TRAM and DIEP flaps because few women have blood vessels large enough (or any at all) for the procedure .
The SIEA flap leaves all of the muscles and most of the connective tissue of the abdomen untouched, so it leaves no weakness in the abdominal area. This can be important for women who are physically active.
Blood clots are more common with SIEA flap procedures than with other techniques .
The SIEA flap procedure should only be done by microvascular surgeons who are well-trained and experienced with this technique.
Gluteal artery perforator (GAP) flap procedures use skin and fatty tissue from the buttocks to reconstruct the breast.
Because no buttock muscle is used in either procedure, athletic ability after surgery is rarely affected .
S-GAP or I-GAP flap reconstruction may be a good option for women with more fatty tissue in their buttocks area than in their abdomen [122-123]. If the GAP procedure leaves the buttocks noticeably different in size, liposuction can be used later to remove fat from the opposite buttock to create a more even look.
As with the DIEP flap, GAP flap procedures are more complex than other types of flap procedures and require a microvascular surgeon. They take longer than other types of tissue flap surgeries (even longer than the DIEP flap procedure), which may increase the risk of surgical complications [122-123].
If an S-GAP or I-GAP flap procedure is not successful, it can be repeated using tissue from the opposite buttocks (either immediately or at a later time).
Transverse upper gracilis (TUG) flap procedures use skin, fatty tissue and muscle from the upper inner thigh to reconstruct the breast . It uses the gracilis muscle, which helps bring the leg toward the body. This is not a critical muscle and most people do not notice a lot of weakness.
TUG flap may be a good option for women with excess fatty tissue in their upper inner thigh area who are not good candidates for TRAM, DIEP, SIEA or GAP flap procedures.
As with other microvascular flap procedures, TUG flap is a complex surgery that requires a microvascular surgeon.
If a TUG flap is not successful, it can be repeated using tissue from the opposite upper inner thigh.
Radiation therapy can cause problems (such as changes in skin color, skin quality and tissue shrinkage and tightness) with both implant and natural tissue reconstruction.
For women choosing flap breast reconstruction who will need radiation therapy after mastectomy, it is better to delay the flap reconstruction until after radiation therapy. This greatly lowers the chances that the look, feel and size of the reconstructed breast will be harmed by the radiation therapy .
Women may also consider having immediate reconstruction with a tissue expander to preserve the breast skin envelope. Then, once radiation therapy is over, the expander can be removed and a flap reconstruction can be done.
If you are having immediate breast reconstruction, your surgeon may perform a skin-sparing mastectomy to preserve as much of the skin of the breast as possible.
With a skin-sparing mastectomy, the tumor and clean margins are removed, along with the nipple, areola, fat and other tissue that make up the breast. What remains is much of the skin that surrounded the breast. This skin can then be used to cover a tissue flap or an implant.
The major benefit of a skin-sparing mastectomy is that it avoids having to use skin from other parts of the body for reconstruction. That skin can have a different color, texture and thickness compared to natural breast skin, creating a “patch” look.
In the past, there were concerns that skin-sparing mastectomy may increase the risk of breast cancer recurrence. However, most studies to date have not found an increased risk and the procedure is considered safe [13,124-126].
Creating the nipple and areola is the last step of breast reconstruction. These procedures give the reconstructed breast a more natural look and can help hide some of the mastectomy scars.
Nipple and areola reconstruction are usually outpatient procedures and have few risks . However, not all women can have these procedures. And, those who have had radiation therapy may have higher surgical risks.
The nipple can be recreated using skin from the reconstructed breast itself after the implant or flap reconstruction has healed.
The areola can be created with a tattoo or by grafting skin from the groin area. Skin in the groin area may have a similar tone as the skin on the areola. The scar from where the skin is taken can be hidden in the bikini line.
Women who cannot have nipple reconstruction surgery (or choose not to have it) can consider a three-dimensional (3D) tattoo to create the look of the nipple and areola. It’s a good idea to check with your insurance before getting a tattoo as this step may not be covered.
Nipple-sparing mastectomy is a newer procedure that removes the tumor with clean margins, as well as the fat and other tissue in the breast, but leaves the nipple and areola intact. This improves the overall look of the reconstructed breast.
Not all women can have nipple-sparing mastectomy. For example, the breast cancer may be too close to the nipple and areola. However, it may be an option for some women with breast cancer and for women having a prophylactic mastectomy [13,127-128].
Women with large, sagging breasts may not be good candidates for the procedure because there may be more risk of the nipple moving out of position after surgery and more risk of the nipple tissue breaking down.
With nipple-sparing mastectomy, the nipple will likely lose sensation and some projection. Sometimes, the position of the nipple can move after nipple-sparing mastectomy.
In some cases, the tissues may break down and some or all of the nipple and areola may need to be removed .
Clinical trials are studying whether nipple-sparing mastectomy increases the risk of breast cancer recurrence.
Learn more about clinical trials of breast reconstruction.
Most women feel tired and sore for several weeks after breast reconstruction. Your surgeon or plastic surgeon may prescribe medications to ease the pain.
Talk with your plastic surgeon about specific instructions after your surgery.
For some types of surgery, you may still have a small tube(s) called a surgical drain(s) in place when you go home from the hospital. This allows extra fluid from the surgery to escape. You will learn how to take care of the drain. You may need to wear a special bra while your reconstructed breast heals.
Overhead lifting, strenuous sports and sex should be avoided for 4-6 weeks after reconstructive surgery . Most women can resume normal activity within 8 weeks . Talk with your health care provider about activities to avoid and when you can get back to your normal routine.
Remember that it may take some time to see the full results of your reconstructed breast. The bruising and swelling from the surgery may take up to 8 weeks to go away .
How you feel about the final results may depend on your expectations. Keep in mind a reconstructed breast will not look or feel the same as a natural breast.
Most of the scarring will fade and improve over time, but some scars may never go away. And, as you age and the opposite breast changes shape, the reconstructed breast may look or feel less natural.
Most women have a period of emotional adjustment after breast reconstruction. Feeling anxious or depressed is common. It may help to talk with a counselor or other women who have had breast reconstruction.
Many states require all health insurance providers (including Medicaid) to cover breast reconstruction after a mastectomy (learn more).
The Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 requires group health plans, insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) that pay for mastectomy to also pay for :
The Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act does not apply to some church and government insurance plans. For more information on the Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act, visit the Department of Labor website or call toll-free at 866-444-3272.
Many states require all health insurance providers (including those not covered under the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act) to pay for reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy.
Check with your state insurance commissioner's office or your health insurance provider to find out which services are covered by your state's laws and your health plan.
For more information on coverage of breast cancer-related services by state, visit the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' website.
Learn More | Current Article
BreastCancerTrials.org in collaboration with Susan G. Komen offers a custom matching service to help you find a clinical trial on breast reconstruction that fits your needs.
Learn more about clinical trials and find a list of resources to help you find a clinical trial
* Please note, the information provided within Komen Perspectives articles is only current as of the date of posting. Therefore, some information may be out of date at this time.
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