After a mastectomy, some women choose to have cosmetic surgery to remake their breast. This type of surgery is called breast reconstruction. It can be performed at the same time as mastectomy (immediate reconstruction) or later (delayed reconstruction).
The breast is usually reshaped in two stages, or surgeries. During the first stage, a tissue expander is used. An implant is placed during the second stage. Sometimes the implant is inserted in the first stage.
If you are having reconstruction at the same time as your mastectomy, your surgeon may do either of the following:
- Skin-sparing mastectomy. This means only the area around your nipple and areola is removed.
- Nipple-sparing mastectomy. This means all of the skin, the nipple, and areola are kept.
In either case, skin is left to make reconstruction easier.
If you will have breast reconstruction later, your surgeon will remove enough skin over your breast during the mastectomy to be able to close the skin flaps.
Breast reconstruction with implants is usually done in two stages, or surgeries. During the surgeries, you will receive general anesthesia. This is medicine that keeps you asleep and pain-free.
In the first stage:
- The surgeon creates a pouch under your chest muscle.
- A small tissue expander is placed in the pouch. The expander is balloon-like and made of silicone.
- A valve is placed below the skin of the breast. The valve is connected by a tube to the expander. (The tube stays below the skin in your breast area.)
- Your chest still looks flat right after this surgery.
- Starting about 2 to 3 weeks after surgery, you see your surgeon every 1 or 2 weeks. During these visits, your surgeon injects a small amount of saline (salt water) through the valve into the expander.
- Over time, the expander slowly enlarges the pouch in your chest to the right size for the surgeon to place an implant.
- When it reaches the right size, you will wait 1 to 3 months before the permanent breast implant is placed during the second stage.
In the second stage:
- The surgeon removes the tissue expander from your chest and replaces it with a breast implant. This surgery takes 1 to 2 hours.
- Before this surgery, you will have talked with your surgeon about the different kinds of breast implants. Implants may be filled with either saline or a silicone gel.
You may have another minor procedure later that remakes the nipple and areola area.
Why the Procedure is Performed
You and your doctor will decide together about whether to have breast reconstruction, and when to have it.
Having breast reconstruction does not make it harder to find a tumor if your breast cancer comes back.
Getting breast implants does not take as long as breast reconstruction that uses your own tissue. You will also have fewer scars. But, the size, fullness, and shape of the new breasts are more natural with reconstruction that uses your own tissue.
Many women choose not to have breast reconstruction or implants. They may use a prosthesis (an artificial breast) in their bra that gives them a natural shape, or they may choose to use nothing at all.
Women who have had a lumpectomy rarely need to have breast reconstruction.
Risks of anesthesia and surgery in general are:
Risks of breast reconstruction with implants are:
- The implant may break or leak. If this happens, you will need more surgery.
- A scar may form around the implant in your breast. If the scar becomes tight, your breast may feel hard and cause pain or discomfort. This is called capsular contracture. You will need more surgery if this happens.
- Infection soon after surgery. You will need to have the expander or the implant removed.
- Breast implants can shift. This will cause a change in the shape of your breast.
- One breast may be larger than the other (asymmetry of the breasts).
- You may have a loss of sensation around the nipple and areola.
Before the Procedure
Tell your surgeon if you are taking any drugs, supplements, or herbs you bought without a prescription.
During the week before your surgery:
- You may be asked to stop medicines that make it hard for your blood to clot. These include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), vitamin E, clopidogrel (Plavix), warfarin (Coumadin), and others.
- Ask your surgeon which drugs you should still take on the day of surgery.
- If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking slows recovery and increases the risk for problems. Ask your health care provider for help quitting.
On the day of your surgery:
- Follow instructions about not eating or drinking and about showering before you go to the hospital.
- Take the drugs your surgeon told you to take with a small sip of water.
- Arrive at the hospital on time.
After the Procedure
You may be able to go home the same day as the surgery. Or, you will need to stay in the hospital overnight.
You may still have drains in your chest when you go home. Your surgeon will remove them later during an office visit. You may have pain around your cuts after surgery. Follow instructions about taking pain medicine.
Fluid may collect under the incision. This is called a seroma. It is fairly common. A seroma may go away on its own. If it does not go away, it needs to be drained by the surgeon during an office visit.
Results of this surgery are usually very good. It is nearly impossible to make a reconstructed breast look exactly the same as the remaining natural breast. You may need more "touch up" procedures to get the result you want.
Reconstruction will not restore normal sensation to the breast or the new nipple.
Having cosmetic surgery after breast cancer can improve your sense of well-being and your quality of life.
Breast implants surgery
Roehl KR, Wilhelmi BJ, Phillips LG. Breast reconstruction. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 37.
Said HK, Javid SH, Colohan S. Breast reconstruction following mastectomy: indications, techniques, and results. In: Cameron JL, Cameron AM, eds. Current Surgical Therapy. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014.
Review Date 3/13/2015
Updated by: Debra G. Wechter, MD, FACS, general surgery practice specializing in breast cancer, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.