Many breast surgeons and breast cancer patients believe that breast reconstruction is an important step in recovering physically and mentally from a mastectomy. Research shows that women who undergo flap procedures (described below) have a better quality of life after reconstruction than women undergoing reconstruction with breast implants.1
However, not all women are able to undergo those procedures. Unfortunately, many patients are not given complete information about the different options for breast reconstruction, including the risks and benefits of each. In fact, a 2017 study showed that only 43% of mastectomy patients received the information and counseling necessary to make an informed decision regarding their reconstruction choice.2
The Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 is a law that requires that private insurance companies pay for breast reconstruction if they pay for mastectomies. This includes reconstruction on the removed breast, modification of the other breast to create a symmetric appearance, and treatment of any complications that result from a mastectomy or reconstruction. The forms of reconstruction covered may vary by state and insurance provider, so it is important that you call your insurance provider to see which options will be covered in your particular case.3
This article does not provide medical advice, but we provide information based on scientific research and from speaking to many experts in the field. We recommend discussing your treatment options with a physician whom you trust. As a patient, you have the right to seek more than one medical opinion.
Which Type of Breast Reconstruction is Best?
The decision of which reconstruction option to choose, if any, is a personal one. To make an informed choice, however, patients need to meet with breast surgeons who are skilled at the different options. Since most breast surgeons only know how to do reconstruction with breast implants, they don’t usually provide good information to their patients about the benefits of other options.
There are several studies which look at the long-term outcomes for each of the reconstruction options, and these can help patients to make a decision.
For example, a study published in 2018 analyzed over 2000 reconstruction patients and found that patients who undergo autologous breast reconstruction (“flap” procedures) are generally more satisfied in the long-term than women who choose reconstruction with breast implants. After two years, patients who chose to get flap procedures reported having a better quality of life than patients who got breast implants. Some of the areas in which the flap patients reported greater satisfaction include their psychosocial, physical, and sexual well-being.4
The researchers also found differences in surgery-related complications within the first 2 years after surgery. Flap procedures have significantly higher rates of short-term surgery-related complications that occur immediately following surgery. In contrast, breast implants have more surgery-related complications that occur weeks or months after the surgery is completed. 5 In addition, women are likely to need multiple surgeries to replace implants over their lifetime.6
A description of the options for reconstruction is below.
Reconstruction with Breast Implants
Breast implants are the most common form of breast reconstruction after mastectomy. 7 This is probably because breast implants are the easiest form of reconstruction and most plastic surgeons are not skilled enough to perform the other types of breast reconstruction discussed below. There are silicone gel breast implants and saline breast implants on the market, and both options have a high complication rate for reconstruction patients. You will probably be told that breast implants are not lifetime devices, but that’s an understatement. Studies by researchers and by implant manufacturers have shown that after three years, most reconstruction patients will have at least one serious complication.8,9
Below are some of the most common complications of breast implants.
- Implant Rupture and Leakage 10
- Capsular Contracture (painful hardening and abnormal shape of the breast)11
- Extrusion (breast implant coming through the skin)12
- Breast Pain13
- Autoimmune symptoms such as fibromyalgia14
- Back and Neck Pain15
- Interference with Mammography for breast cancer screening 16
You can read more about risks and complications related to breast implants here and more about the different types of breast implants here. Despite the risks, some women get implants because they are not good candidates for other types of breast reconstruction. Women who are very thin or very physically active, have poor veins, or who may become pregnant in the near future may not be good candidates for other reconstruction options.
Reconstruction with Autologous Tissue Transfer (Flap Procedures)
Autologous tissue transfer (also known as a flap or flap procedure) refers to any procedure in which the body’s own tissue is used to reconstruct breasts. Surgeons take fat and other tissue from another part of a woman’s body and move it to create breasts. Sometimes, implants are used along with the tissue transfer to create larger breasts. When implants are used with flap procedures, the risk for complications is higher than for either procedure alone. For that reason, it makes sense to choose either flap reconstruction or implants but not both.
There are various types of autologous tissue transfer as described below.
Flap Reconstruction with Muscle and Fat
In this procedure, surgeons take muscle and fat from other areas of the body and move it to the breast area. The most common form of this procedure is the TRAM flap, which uses muscle and fat from the abdomen. While using stomach muscle is typical, surgeons can also take muscle from the inner thigh or buttocks. Reconstruction methods using fat and muscle create a more natural looking reconstruction than those using only fat due to their added firmness. Also, the larger amount of tissue used during muscle and fat reconstructions enables the surgeon to create larger breasts than those with fat only. A drawback to this type of surgery is its complexity. Veins and arteries must be reattached to the muscle and fat, so this surgery requires an experienced vascular surgeon. Even with a good surgeon, this surgery isn’t 100% successful. However, if it is successful, these reconstructed breasts can last a lifetime. But, if muscle is removed from the abdomen, the women will not have as much strength there as they did before.18
Flap Reconstruction with Fat Only
Some reconstructions are performed using only fat. The most common form of this is the DIEP flap, which takes skin, vessels, and fat from the abdomen but spares the muscles. Surgeons can take tissue from most areas of the body that have a large fat supply.19 Reconstruction with only fat takes more time than other procedures because the tissue has to be harvested and removed from the body before the reconstruction can take place.20 To be a good candidate for this procedure, women need more body fat to create the breast. This means that women with low body fat or poor vascularity may not be good candidates for this surgery. The difficulty of this form of reconstruction are similar to those of reconstructions done with muscle and fat. However, since no muscle is used, patients should not expect to permanently lose strength in any part of their body.21
Reconstruction with the Latissimus Dorsi
This surgery, commonly known as Lat flap, uses the latissimus dorsi muscle to reconstruct breasts. The latissimus dorsi is a muscle of the upper back that extends around the side of the body. This procedure is more likely to fail than some other flap procedures, but less likely to have surgery-related complications or need reoperations within the first two years.22
Lat flap can be performed on women who do not have enough body fat for other forms of autologous reconstruction, and is frequently used with breast implants. Some surgeons prefer it because the only visible scar will be from the mastectomy, and because the muscle can remain attached to its original blood source, which lowers the chance of the tissue dying after transfer. However, since the latissimus dorsi is a large and important back muscle, the procedure can lead to serious difficulties moving, lifting, or performing strenuous exercise. Patients who choose this option can also expect to get fatigued more easily.23
Flat Closure (No Breast Reconstruction)
After mastectomy, or after breast implants are removed, you also have the option not to reconstruct your breast. Many women choose to undergo a flat closure procedure as an alternative to breast mound reconstruction. One in 4 double mastectomy patients and 1 in 2 single mastectomy patients choose to “go flat” by not replacing their breasts with implants or transferring tissue from another part of their body.24 There are many reasons why patients choose not to reconstruct breasts, including the desire to avoid more surgery, concerns about implant safety, integrity of irritated skin, and a preference to minimize potential loss of muscle strength and mobility that can result from building a breast mound.25
The goal of flat closure is to provide an aesthetically pleasing, smooth contoured chest as an alternative to breast mound reconstruction. Sometimes, pockets of fat or a bulge of skin at the end of the scar or under the incision may be left behind after mastectomy, especially for women who are overweight.26 Revision surgery is an option to remove any remaining tissue or skin, or to fill in areas of concavity after the breasts or implants are removed.27 If a woman chooses to remove her reconstruction implants for any reason, the excess skin that remains will also need to be revised in order to attain a flat closure.
Many women report that they feel pressured by doctors or family members to have breast reconstruction surgery. Surgeons may tell patients that implants will help them look “better than new” — without telling them about the high rate of cosmetic and health complications from reconstruction. If you feel that your surgeon is not considering your preferences seriously, seek another opinion so you can make a decision that is right for you. Learn more about flat closure here, and hear the personal stories of other women who have chosen to “go flat” here. View a photo gallery of women proudly living with less than two breasts here.
It’s Your Choice
As you can see from the research above, flap procedures are a very good choice for women who want a lifetime solution that avoids the complications typical of breast implants, and the possible risk of developing lymphoma. However, fewer doctors perform flap procedures. They are also longer and more complicated surgeries than reconstruction using breast implants. For this reason, it is extremely important that women choosing a flap procedure go to a surgeon who is very experienced in autologous reconstruction.
When making a reconstruction decision, it is important for each woman to weigh the risks and benefits of each procedure with a doctor that is capable of these different options, so that she can make a decision that is right for her.