When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she’s faced with a disease that can take things. We often understand the physicality of what a cancer diagnosis can take. It is literally a fight for her life; and in the course of treating and beating breast cancer, we may have to remove part or all of one or both breasts. But we sometimes forget that’s not the only thing that the disease can take away. It can take a woman’s confidence, her self-esteem, her joy and peace of mind.
Fortunately, medicine today has something to offer these women: Hope. We have the means to give women back what cancer tried to take from them, and help them to recover both physically and emotionally from the fight of their life.
[tw-divider]By the numbers[/tw-divider]
According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Everyone knows someone affected by the disease; they are the brave faces of our mothers, our sisters, our wives, our friends.
In terms of breast reconstruction, studies have revealed:
- Less than a quarter of women (23 percent) know the wide range of breast reconstruction options available;
- Only 22 percent of women are familiar with the quality of outcomes that can be expected;
- Less than one in five women (19 percent) understand that timing their treatment for breast cancer and when they decide to undergo reconstruction can have a huge impact on their options and results;
- However, 89 percent of women want to see and know more about possible breast reconstruction surgery results before they have their own cancer surgery.
*All stats courtesy of bradayusa.org
Women want to know about what can be done to help them get back what their cancer is trying to take from them, and that’s where medical professionals like me come in.
[tw-divider]Repair, restore, rejoice[/tw-divider]
Advancements in technology, surgical technique and medical knowledge mean that women today have a wide variety of options when it comes to reconstruction and repair after cancer surgery and treatment.
There are three types of breast reconstruction:
- Reconstruction using implants – An implant filled with silicone gel or saline solution is used to recreate the breast either immediately or after a series of expansions with a tissue expander.
• Multiple, short surgeries;
• Shorter recovery time;
• No natural sag, stays firm over time, may appear less natural with time.
- Autologous reconstruction – Using tissue taken from another part of the woman’s body, the breast can be rebuilt, either pedicled (tissue left connected to its blood supply and tunneled to breast area) or free (tissue completely removed and then microsurgically reattached).
• Longer surgery and recovery time, depending on type of surgery performed;
• Feels, looks more natural;
• Leaves a scar at site of tissue taken to reconstruct the breast.
- Autologous reconstruction with implant – Combining both of the above types of reconstruction.
These reconstruction techniques can be performed either immediately at the time of the mastectomy, or in a delayed fashion, months or even years after the cancer surgery. Whether or not the surgery is done immediately or delayed often depends on the type and stage of the cancer. Patients should talk to their breast surgeon as soon as possible about whether or not immediate reconstruction is a safe and reasonable option for them. Depending on the treatment needs after cancer surgery (chemotherapy/radiation), it is sometimes better to wait and fully treat the cancer before proceeding to the reconstruction.
When I initially talk to my patients about breast reconstruction, I do a lot of listening. I need to know what my patient wants out of starting this process, in terms of how she wants to look and feel. What kind of social support does she have? What is going on in her life, not just now, but next week, next month, next year, in the next 10 years?
Breast reconstruction is a process that takes time to complete, and it’s my job to help inform and guide the patient, not just on what I can technically do, but on what makes sense for her and her life. If the patient and I set realistic goals for what we set out to achieve together, I am much more likely to be able to meet her expectations so that she is happy and able to smile each day when she looks at herself in the mirror. That’s the best result I can ever ask for. The patient is a critical part of the team when it comes to planning out her care.
It is a team effort, and I truly mean that. The care plan doesn’t just include me and the patient, but involves the breast surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, gynecologists, geneticists, nurses and the patient’s family and friends. We can’t just think about our own separate part of the process. When we work together, we have the ability to see the big picture and envision the best outcome for the patient.
Ultimately, this entire process starts with knowledge, and that’s why we encourage women to educate themselves about this subject, to help close the loop on breast cancer. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and October 15 is National Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day. That’s when we get a chance to reach out to women everywhere and show them that there is hope of getting back what cancer tries to take. I encourage you to come visit with us on October 15 (see the sidebar for details), and to also talk to women you’re close to. We want you to be powerful as you fight to regain your life; and knowledge is power.