Breast reconstruction is a commonly misunderstood part of the cancer journey. In honor of Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day coming up on October 17th, I am sharing more about the reconstruction process, my journey and the options women have should they choose reconstruction before or after cancer treatment.
What Is Breast Reconstruction?
Breast reconstruction is the process that follows when women wish to have the appearance of breasts after a mastectomy. A mastectomy removes all breast tissue creating an almost concave space on the chest wall. Surgeons can then use a variety of methods to recreate the appearance of breasts using implants and/or fat and tissue from other areas of the body. Each woman’s breast reconstruction will be unique to her as will be the options she has available based on her unique situation.
Challenges of Breast Reconstruction
Breast reconstruction is NOT a boob job. As you will see in the images and descriptions that follow, reconstruction is a painful, lengthy and emotionally challenging experience. Some of the side effects and complications may include but are not limited to the following:
- Limited range of motion
- Loss of sensation
- Body dysmorphia
- Lifting restrictions
- Discomfort when sleeping
- Muscle Spasms
- Phantom nerve pain
Emotional Impact of Breast Reconstruction
While the surgeries themselves can present their own challenges, the emotional aspect of reconstruction can sometimes be even harder. Going through a 1-3 year process of reconstruction can leave women with deep rooted body image challenges that require professional support and guidance to resolve. It’s important to recognize these challenges as a major piece of the experience so that women can feel understood, respected and empowered throughout the process.
What are Your Breast Reconstruction Options?
Depending on each woman’s body, cancer diagnosis, timing and goals, doctors will provide a variety of breast reconstruction options. Some of the most common options are noted below. Each woman’s journey will be unique even if it falls into one of these categories. The important part is that women know their options and feel empowered to make the choices that are right for them physically and emotionally.
Women who wish to go smaller than their original size are generally candidates for immediate reconstruction. With this route the plastic surgeon will put implants in immediately following the mastectomy. This practice was less common when I was diagnosed in 2015, but has become more popular as doctors become more confident with the success of this procedure.
Expander to Implants Reconstruction
The majority of breast reconstructions are done with use of expanders. The expanders (empty silicone balloons) are placed in the chest following a mastectomy. Over a period of 3-6 months the expanders are slowly filled with saline through a syringe until the desired size is achieved. The expansion process is necessary to create a pocket for the future implant and stretch the skin and muscle to the desired size. Check out this post for more on my expansion experience.
DIEP Flap Reconstruction
In a DIEP flap reconstruction, fat, skin, and blood vessels are cut from the wall of the lower belly and moved up to your chest to rebuild the breast. The surgeon will reattach blood vessels of the flap to blood vessels in the chest using microsurgery.
New developments in surgical techniques may allow women choosing DIEP flap surgery to restore sensation in their breasts by connecting the nerves that were cut to nerves in the breast that was reconstructed. This will allow the nerves to potentially regenerate over time. If you’re undergoing a mastectomy and considering this type of reconstruction, talk to your doctor to see if you would be a candidate for ReSensation™. Learn more & find a ReSensation surgeon in your area.
Know Your Options
There are many other options when it comes to breast reconstruction and aesthetic additions including fat grafting, nipple sparing, and 3D tattoos. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your health care professionals before making decisions about your reconstruction. It can also be valuable to talk to other breast cancer survivors before making your decisions as they may lend additional insight. Connect with other women going through breast reconstruction online and in person.
My Breast Reconstruction Journey
My breast reconstruction journey has been a long one. I started with a single mastectomy following my fertility preservation and then immediately started chemo. This all occurred in August of 2015. At the time I didn’t know if I would have radiation and my doctors were not comfort doing immediate reconstruction. While I made the best decision at the time, I now wish I had done more research before choosing a single mastectomy and delayed reconstruction.
Surgery options and trends always changing thanks to research and new developments. Three years later I am seeing more surgeons comfortable with procedures that were just starting when I was going through the process. Sometimes I am disappointed but I am also thrilled that women going through the process today have more choices when it comes to breast reconstruction..
Following chemotherapy, I went back in for a preventative mastectomy on the other side and officially began the reconstruction phase. My reconstruction included expanders, an implant exchange, skin revisions and fat grating. The process has taken over 2 years and at this point I am just tired. Eventually I will need more fat grafting, but for now I need a break. Breast reconstruction requires an immense level of patience and self-love as you are forced to constantly re-adjust to your changing body.
Missing my Former Breasts
Yes I miss having feeling in my breasts and the natural appearance of my former body. Down the line I may explore further options to improve the aesthetics of my reconstructed breasts, but for now, I am happy with the woman I am today. My breasts are just one small part of me and I am ready to focus on building a family. The imperfections, lumps, and scars remind me of where I have been and where I am going. Cancer does not define me, it has inspired me to thrive in spite of everything I have been through.
I encourage any woman considering breast reconstruction to talk to others and research your options before making any decisions. The more you know the more empowered you will be to make the right choices for you. Being an active and educated participant in my breast reconstruction decisions has allowed me to feel at peace with the decisions I made even when I faced disappointment over the appearance or results. You are the only one who knows what is right for you and in time you will be the one to heal yourself throughout the breast reconstruction journey.
This post is brought to you in partnership with ReSensation