Your Questions About Breast Reconstruction Answered

nipple sparing mastectomyThe questions below are answered by the breast reconstruction surgeons of The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction, Dr. James Craigie and Dr. Richard Kline:

If a woman has flap reconstruction, are the nipples reconstructed at the same time or at a later date?

While it is sometimes possible to reconstruct the nipples at the same time, usually for various reasons it is preferable to delay the nipple reconstruction until a later time. Nipples must be positioned very carefully to look their best, and that means the final shape of the breast mound must be stable prior to choosing the nipple position. Tissue flaps must be carefully monitored for several days following the initial reconstruction to assure early detection of any problems, and temporarily leaving extra flap skin on the breast mound helps greatly with this. Additionally, FWIW, the skin that the nipples are reconstructed from, whether flap skin or native breast skin, frequently has no sensation, making it even easier to reconstruct the nipples as a small procedure in the office.

If a woman is a candidate for a nipple-sparing mastectomy, can she have flap reconstruction and retain her nipples?

Yes, in many cases. Problems arise when the breasts are very “ptotic” (droopy), especially if the flaps cannot be made as large as the breast tissue that was removed. The nipples can often be saved even in this situation with special techniques (examples include performing a delayed breast lift some months after flap reconstruction with the flap nourishing the nipple, or, in the case of a prophylactic mastectomy, having a breast lift or reduction some months before the mastectomy), but the overall reconstruction is more complicated and prolonged.

Can you explain what you mean by a muscle-sparing free flap breast reconstruction?

“Muscle-sparing” simply means that NO MUSCLE TISSUE at all is removed. This does not necessarily mean that the muscle suffers no injury, as the blood vessels which nourish the flap usually must be removed from the muscle, but the amount of damage is commonly small enough that the muscle ultimately recovers its function.

What are some criteria that may disqualify a patient for breast reconstruction?

Any serious medical conditions which would prevent a patient from tolerating 4-8 hours of general anesthesia would prevent her from having flap reconstruction. Some medical conditions, such as diabetes, increase various risks (in particular, risks of wound healing problems), but do not disqualify the patient from having reconstruction. We do not perform reconstruction on patients who are currently cigarette smokers (or use nicotine in any form) because nicotine’s effects on wound healing after flap surgery is frequently catastrophic. However, most patients will clear all nicotine form their system after a month’s abstinence. Some very slender patients do not have enough donor tissue anywhere on their bodies for flap reconstruction, but this is quite uncommon.

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