Ask the Doctor- I’ve Completed Radiation. When Is The Right Time To Make A Consultation Appointment To See If I Can Have DIEP Flap Reconstruction?

This week, James E. Craigie MD, of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question about breast reconstruction.

Question: I had a right mastectomy December 8, 2016, and radiation ended March 2017. Currently, I’m having problems with fluid buildup because the skin cells haven’t healed enough to absorb bodily fluids. When should I set an appointment to see if I can have the DIEP flap reconstruction?

Answer: Thank you for your question. No need to wait for a consult. I could see you anytime. Usually, we wait 3 months after completion of radiation before start DIEP breast reconstruction. Every situation is different. If it is convenient to come for a consult I could evaluate your progress and readiness to proceed. Just let me know if you would like my office to contact you about an appointment.
Thanks again!

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Ask the Doctor- Can You Do Repair and Nipple Reconstruction Surgery at the Same Time on the Same Breast?

This week, Richard M. Kline, Jr., MD, of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question about breast reconstruction.

Question: I had hybrid DIEP reconstruction at another facility, and I am disappointed with the results. There have been many issues. For example, my breasts are different shapes and sizes, no node involvement and no microinvasion. The surgeon who did the mastectomy said the path report said the margins were not wide enough and he will need to cut additional skin out during the next surgery. The next surgery is supposed to be to reconstruct the nipple. Can you do both procedures on the same breast at the same time? Please Help!!

Answer: I’m sorry you are having to go through this.

Did you have a complete mastectomy on the left breast or a lumpectomy? If your margins were positive (unbeknownst at the time of surgery, obviously), and you had an immediate DIEP flap, that could be a little complicated to resolve, although I’m sure we could work through it. Given that your scenario is a little bit unusual, it would probably be best if we talked by phone. Please let us know what works for you.

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Ask The Doctor-Am I a Candidate for the DIEP procedure?

This week, James E. Craigie, MD, of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question.

Question: I am interested in the DIEP procedure after my mastectomy 2+ years ago, but wonder if I am a candidate. Would you accept pictures to review, before I would invest in a trip of that distance?

Answer: Thank you for your question. If you are healthy and recovered well from your mastectomies then chances are you could safely have breast reconstruction using your own natural fatty tissue. If you feel that you have extra tummy tissue and would benefit from a tummy tuck approach then the DIEP could be a very good option. The DIEP procedure uses the fatty tissue and skin of the lower tummy. We specialize in breast reconstruction using natural fatty tissue. If a patient does not have enough tummy fat, has already had a tummy tuck or if previous surgery makes the tummy unavailable, then we can still use another area of the body to get natural tissue for breast reconstruction.

We frequently evaluate patients from out of town by looking at photos and getting the important information from them. I can definitely let you know what option would be best for you without having to see you in person. If you want to come for a consult that would be great but we understand that may not be feasible when traveling from a distance.

When patients do travel from out of town we make arrangements in advance and if they are having surgery then I see them in person the day before surgery. I would be glad to have my office staff contact you to let you know how to do the photos. Just let me know. Thanks again for your interest.

Have a question about breast reconstruction or post-surgical you’d like answered from our surgical team? Just ask!

Ask The Doctor – My reconstructed breasts are not well proportioned, can you help?

<alt=breast reconstruction"/>This week, Dr. Richard M. Kline, Jr. of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question.

QUESTION: I had a DIEP done at the same time of my mastectomy a few years back. My incisions opened up around both breasts one week after surgery. After about 3 months of my doctor telling me to put Vaseline on them and keep the areas covered, they became very infected. I then got a second opinion.

The next doctor had me on the operating table the next day and probably did a dozen surgeries on me over the next year to get me healed because I was so infected from being open for so long. I’m scared about this, and I’m very self-conscious about my breasts. One of my breasts was set lower on my chest than the other, making wearing bras difficult. The same breast that is positioned lower on my chest is also larger. It is impossible to wear bathing suits comfortably, too. I have to watch how tops are cut on me because they will show that my breasts are uneven. Is there anything your doctors can do to help with this?

ANSWER:  I’m terribly sorry about all the trouble you’ve had – it sounds like a real nightmare. I can’t, of course, guarantee you that we can make you good as new, but I strongly suspect that we can help, as we’ve seen plenty of other patients with similar stories. Probably the best place to start would be to have one of us call you to discuss your situation further, if that’s OK. It would be very helpful if we had some pictures to look at at the time of the conversation, but that’s not essential at this stage. I also suspect you will ultimately benefit from having an MRI at some point, as this is the best way to look for dead fat or other potential problems. Hang in there, no need to lose hope at this point.

— Richard M. Kline, Jr., M.D.    

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Ask the Doctor: Lymphedema and Lymph Node Transfer

<alt="3 pink roses"/>This week, Dr. James Craigie of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question.

QUESTION: I’ve had breast cancer and developed lymphedema after my mastectomy.  I recently heard about Lymph Node Transfer surgery.  Does it work?  I’m scheduled for a DIEP breast reconstruction, can it be done at the same time?

ANSWER: Lymphedema is a very difficult problem that results when a patient has had breast cancer and has to undergo surgical removal of the lymph nodes under the arm as part of their surgical treatment for breast cancer. There are other causes of lymphedema but our specific interest has been in patients who have had breast cancer.

Lymphedema can be a very debilitating process; it remains a terrible problem worldwide, for all types of reasons. There is still much to be learned about why some people develop lymphedema and others do not. It appears that lymphedema is directly related to several factors in our breast cancer patients. It is directly related to having the lymph nodes removed from under the arm and seems to develop from the scarring that occurs under the arm following mastectomy and / or axillary dissection.

Undergoing radiation of the arm or axilla increases this risk. However, there are many people who undergo removal of the lymph nodes and radiation that do not develop lymphedema. There are also people who have mastectomy, have lymph nodes removed followed by radiation, and don’t develop lymphedema until many years after their surgery. That is the main reason that patients are warned to pay particular attention to their arm if they have had removal of any lymph nodes.

It is also possible that someone could get lymphedema even after simply having a sentinel node removed. A sentinel node procedure (lymphadenectomy) is a way to examine the lymph node without having to remove more than one or two. The whole idea of examining only the sentinel node is to lower the risk for lymphedema, but even with the sentinel node procedure, there is still a chance of developing lymphedema. Our practice became interested in options to help breast cancer patients with lymphedema as we see many who are suffering from the symptoms of this process while undergoing breast reconstruction.

Our practice specializes in microsurgical free flap breast reconstruction utilizing skin, underlying tissue, and microscopic blood vessels that transport life-giving blood to the reconstructed breast. This procedure is commonly referred to as the DIEP if using the abdomen or a GAP if using the buttock tissue. The muscles of the abdominal wall are left intact as it is the removal of the muscles of the abdominal wall that can lead to problems in the donor area, like hernias and bulging, as well as a more involved extended recovery. The lower tummy wall is the most common area that we transfer and it’s also an area where lymph nodes are present. Therefore, over the first decade this surgery was being done, we would encounter lymph nodes in the area of the blood vessels, as well as fatty tissue.

It became obvious that we could transfer lymph nodes on the blood vessels as we refine our technique for microsurgery. Due to the lack of effective treatment for lymphedema, for years surgeons doing perforator flaps have taken on this challenge and are trying to come up with ideas and techniques to treat it. We began doing an extensive amount of research, spanning the globe, looking for information on procedures that may help these patients. In 2005, we formed a group known as the Group for the Advancement of Breast Reconstruction, known as GABRs, and we included members throughout the world who had had a unique experience with our type of breast reconstruction.

We encountered one individual who had 15-years of experience with what is now known as “vascularized lymph node transfer” for the treatment of lymphedema. Initially, Dr. Robert Allen had attempted lymph node transfer during breast reconstruction and the biggest concern was how to transfer lymph nodes from one area of the body to treat lymphedema but not to create lymphedema in the donor area. In 2006, the GABRs met in Beijing, China and invited Corrine Becker, a surgeon from France who had a long history of experience with vascularized lymph node transfer.

She presented her work and through communication and travel to Paris to work with her, members of the GABRs group began to gain experience and learn more of her technique. The biggest hurdle that we were able to overcome was learning how to select the lymph nodes that could be removed as the donor lymph nodes and use those for breast reconstruction without causing lymphedema of the leg. We spent an extensive amount of time discussing her techniques and reviewing her results, as well as her publications.

We then made arrangements for her to travel to South Carolina and actually performed surgery on our own patients with her as an assistant surgeon. Since that time we have been very encouraged by the results with vascularized lymph node transfer as an effective treatment for reduction of the symptoms of lymphedema. We feel very excited but yet are very cautious about all results. It is important that patients realize that this procedure is still evolving and that there are risks involved, but to date we have had very good results and no serious complications.

Improvement of symptoms with vascularized lymph node transfer can occur immediately; however, they also may take up to 2 years to be appreciated. In most of our patients, the indicators of success are different. For the majority, the goal was to improve the edema, lessen the need to wear compression garments on a regular basis, and to eliminate the risk for frequent infections, which are the typical problems that those affected by lymphedema experience.

In order to lower the risk for complications and to closely study our results in conjunction with other colleagues who perform this procedure, we prefer to perform vascularized lymph node transfer as an isolated procedure. It can be done at the time of breast reconstruction; however, there is a chance that some people with mild lymphedema who undergo breast reconstruction may have improvement without lymph node transfer. Therefore, in order to closely study our results, we perform the breast reconstruction first followed by vascularized lymph node transfer as the second step. When the results are complete, we can determine whether it was the reconstruction or the transferred lymph nodes that gave the end result. It is important again to reemphasize that the main risk for of the surgery is that the transfer may not work. It is possible that if the transfer did not work resulting in more scar, the lymphedema could worsen.

Thankfully, to date, we have not experienced this complication. Other complications are damage to the blood vessels under the arm or the nerves under the arm. Therefore, our preference is to have an oncologic surgeon, who performs axillary dissection, release the scar under arm.  At the same surgical setting, after the scar is released, we perform the transfer by removing very specialized lymph nodes from the outer and lower abdominal wall or outer upper leg. We preserve the lymph nodes of the inside leg. These are the ones that drain the lower extremity and therefore, we feel that the risk for lymphedema of the donor area is reduced.

At this point, we have received some very exciting results along with some mixed results and continue to follow our patients very closely. We have had no patients with any serious complications and no patients at this point with lymphedema of the donor site. We are hopeful that the future holds vascularized lymph node transfer as an effective option for people with lymphedema following breast cancer surgery.

We plan to continue to devote and focus our energies on a surgical solution while simultaneously not exposing people to excess risk of additional problems. Once again, we do have to admit that the surgery, although giving some promising results, is  still evolving at this point and we choose to proceed with caution in the best interest of our patients.

— James Craigie, M.D.

Have a question about breast reconstruction or post-surgical care you’d like answered from our surgical team? Just ask us!

Ask The Doctor: I’m looking for a surgeon that performs DIEP procedures.

<alt="pink roses"/>This week, Dr. James Craigie of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction answers your question.

QUESTION: I was diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ breast cancer and am looking for a surgeon that does DIEP, sensory nerve reconstruction, and vascular lymph node transfer. Does your team perform these procedures?

ANSWER: We have been specializing in the procedures you asked about since 2002. If you would like to have me give you my opinion about your specific situation let me know. My partner and I have performed approximately 1,200 muscle sparing breast reconstructions together. We also reconnect sensory nerves and are experienced in vascularized lymph node transfer. We do phone consults if you’re interested in discussing this more. Thank you!

James E. Craigie MD

Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction

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Best of Ask the Doctor

charleston breast surgeonsAt The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction, our mission is to help women everywhere make smart, informed decisions about breast reconstruction and overall healthcare.

Over the years, our surgeons, Dr. James Craigie and Dr. Richard M. Kline, Jr., have answered a wealth of questions about breast reconstructive surgery—from the different kinds of procedures to post-op healing tips.

If you’re searching for a thorough introduction to breast reconstructive surgery, here’s a sample of the invaluable advice our surgeons gave the past year:

Your Questions about Natural Breast Reconstruction and Implants Answered

Scarring After Breast Reconstruction Surgery

Tackling the Challenges of Breast Reconstruction After Lumpectomy and Radiation

The Benefits of DIEP Flap Breast Reconstruction Over Other Reconstructive Options

Is This Normal? Your Post Op Breast Reconstruction Question Answered 

Tips for Improving Recovery and Healing Time

If you are seeking advice about breast cancer, breast reconstruction, or healthcare options, please send your questions our way! We will address all of your questions with detailed and valuable insight straight from our surgeons.

What Is the Recovery Period for a DIEP Procedure?

I’m getting ready to have reconstruction surgery in Mount Pleasant and the procedure I’m having consists of the tissue being taken from my abdominal area. How long is the recovery period for this procedure versus having the tissue taken from my back?

If the tissue from the abdomen is being transferred as a DIEP flap, you will probably require 4 – 8 weeks for recovery, of which less than one week will probably be spent in the hospital (usually 4 days in our practice). If the tissue is being transferred as a pedicled TRAM flap (in which your abdominal rectus muscle is sacrificed to carry blood for the flap), the time quoted by your surgeon for recovery may be about the same, but some patients may complain of discomfort for considerably longer periods. With either procedure, some patients will heal faster, and some will heal more slowly, not surprisingly.

When you say tissue is taken from your back, I assume you mean a latissimus muscle flap will be used. This is generally done in conjunction with a prosthetic implant being placed, as the latissimus muscle rarely has enough bulk to make a breast by itself. Generally speaking, a reconstruction using the latissimus is easier to recover from than one using the abdomen, because the latissimus is not used constantly for activities such maintaining posture and breathing. Additionally, at least two other muscles, the teres major and the pectoralis major, have functions which strongly overlap the function of the latissimus, and they are able to “take over for it” to some extent. There are no muscles which duplicate the function of the rectus abdominus quite as closely.

—Richard M. Kline Jr., M.D

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Breast Reconstruction After Lumpectomy and Radiation

The below questions are answered by Dr. Richard M. Kline, Jr. of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction.

Can I have a breast reconstruction two years after the lumpectomy and radiation?

Absolutely! While reconstruction with implants after radiation (even if lumpectomy and not a whole mastectomy were performed) can often be problematic (if not impossible), the chance of getting a successful reconstruction using your own tissue is very high. In the simplest scenario, it is usually possible to use tissue from the abdomen or buttocks to simply “replace” the breast tissue lost from lumpectomy and radiation.

Alternatively, sometimes a better result can be obtained if the lumpectomy is converted to a mastectomy prior to reconstruction. Finally, if the survivor is in a high-risk group for developing another breast cancer, she may wish to consider whether bilateral mastectomy is advisable prior to reconstruction. Usually reconstructing a lumpectomy defect will require only one side of the abdomen, so if the other side is not needed for reconstruction, it will be removed for symmetry and discarded.

What tips do you share with your patients for them to achieve the very best results from breast reconstruction?

1. Have a positive attitude! Patients who are excited about their reconstruction frequently do very well and tolerate any “bumps in the road” much better.

2. Education. Try to become very familiar with your desired type of reconstruction, both through reading and discussing it with patients who have been through it already. Knowing what to expect allays fears and makes everything easier.

3. If time permits, maximize your body’s fitness through diet and exercise, to the extent that you are comfortable doing so.

—Richard M. Kline Jr., M.D.

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The Benefits of DIEP Flap Breast Reconstruction Over Other Reconstructive Options

diep reconstructionThe below question is answered by Charleston breast surgeon, Dr. Richard M. Kline, Jr. of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction:

What are the benefits of the DIEP flap breast reconstruction over other options?

I am going to break this question into two parts.

The first part is what are the benefits of the DIEP flap over reconstructive options using implants?  Let us start with the benefits of implants.  The primary benefit of implant is that the operations are shorter, they are potentially safer, and you do not need to operate on another part of the body. Additionally, implants are readily available, and if you do not have enough extra body tissue somewhere to make a breast, implants may be the preferred choice for this reason.  The advantage of the DIEP flap over implants is that it produces a much more natural feeling, warmer, and trouble free breast (after the reconstruction process is completed).  There is data to suggest that women tend to accept the reconstructed breast as their own more readily if it is made using their own tissue, in comparison to women who have a reconstructed breast using implants.  Additionally, many women feel that they have too much extra tissue in their abdominal area, and they may actually view removing this tissue to make a breast as an added bonus.

The second part of this answer is going to be why is the DIEP flap better than other reconstructive options using the patients own tissue, with the most commonly performed in our practice being the GAP or gluteal artery perforator flap, which is taking the buttock.  The primarily advantage of the DIEP over the GAP is that it is faster, and no position changes are needed during surgery to harvest the flap.  If the patient has adequate abdominal tissue to meet her reconstructive needs, we generally recommend using this as our first line option.  Having said that, however, the buttock serves very well to make breast, although the process is a little more tedious and lengthy.

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