Some Hidden Choices in Breast Reconstruction

Natasha Singer, New York Times: December 23, 2008

For many cancer patients undergoing mastectomies, reconstructive breast surgery can seem like a first step to reclaiming their bodies.

But even as promising new operations are gaining traction at academic medical centers, plastic surgeons often fail to tell patients about them. One reason is that not all surgeons have trained to perform the latest procedures. Another reason is money: some complex surgeries are less profitable for doctors and hospitals, so they have less of an incentive to offer them, doctors say.

“It is clear that many reconstruction patients are not being given the full picture of their options,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, a nonprofit group in Washington.

Uneven information about reconstructive options is a subset of a larger problem, said Dr. Amy K. Alderman, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Only one third of women undergoing operations for breast cancer said their general surgeons had discussed reconstruction at all, according to a study by Dr. Alderman of 1,844 women in Los Angeles and Detroit that was published in February in the journal Cancer.

Once patients are so informed, she added, plastic surgeons should tell them of options beyond implants. “The next hurdle would be letting them know that using their own tissue is an option, because my guess is that they are not even getting that far in the discussion,” Dr. Alderman said.

Implant surgery is the most popular reconstruction method in the United States. Often performed immediately after a mastectomy, it initially involves the least surgery ­ usually a short procedure to insert a temporary balloonlike device called an expander and the shortest recovery time.

But implants come with the likelihood of future operations. Within four years of implant reconstruction, more than one third of reconstruction patients in clinical studies had undergone a second operation, primarily to fix problems like ruptures and infections, and a few for cosmetic reasons, according to studies submitted by implant makers to the Food and Drug Administration. (Reconstructive patients are more likely to develop complications after implant surgery than cosmetic patients with healthy breast tissue.)

“Patients should not necessarily accept the first thing they hear as the end-all, because that is not necessarily the full story,” Dr. Allen said.


All articles are reviewed and approved by Diana Zuckerman, PhD, and other senior staff.

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