Breast Reconstruction FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to have breast reconstruction?
It is never medically necessary to have breast reconstruction. This is considered an elective procedure, meaning you can choose to have it done or not. Some women choose to have a mastectomy (removal of breast tissue) without reconstruction. Federal law mandates all insurance plans pay for breast reconstruction for breast cancer.

What is the difference between immediate and delayed reconstruction?
Many patients prefer to have reconstruction done (or at least the process started) at the same time as their mastectomy. Breast reconstruction performed at the same time as your mastectomy is called immediate reconstruction. Delayed reconstruction is a term used if you choose to have the mastectomy done and then wait to have the reconstruction at a later date.

The majority of the surgeries done at Albany Medical Center are immediate reconstruction. With immediate reconstruction, you are decreasing the overall number of surgeries you may need. You have a better chance at an optimal cosmetic result. For many women, there is a psychological benefit to immediately pursuing reconstruction.

Are all women candidates for immediate breast reconstruction?
The vast majority of women are candidates for reconstruction. There are a variety of reconstructive options and you may not be a candidate for all types. You and your plastic surgeon will discuss which type of breast reconstruction is best for you.

What are the major types of reconstruction available?
There are three types of breast reconstruction. The first is tissue expander reconstruction, also known as implant reconstruction. The second is autologous tissue reconstruction, also known as free flap reconstruction which is a procedure where your plastic surgeon uses your own tissues, typically from the abdomen but can also come from your buttocks and thighs. The third is a combination of the two methods, using your own tissue from the back, latissimus muscle, plus a tissue expander/ implant underneath.

In addition, Albany Med offers nipple and areola reconstruction and tattooing.

Do implants last forever?
Implants are not lifetime devices; both saline and silicone implants can rupture or leak. If you have saline implants, you will notice a slow deflation of the implant. The body is able to absorb the saline leaking out of the implant and over a few days to a week and you will notice that your implant is getting smaller.

If you have silicone implants, there may be a change in the shape of the implant, however most of the time, there is no change at all. The only way to detect a leak in a silicone implant is through MRI.

Implant ruptures rates, regardless of saline or silicone, are approximately 1% per year; this means that your implant can rupture at any time after being placed.

Why do I need tissue expansion? My friend had breast augmentation and they just put the implants in without tissue expansion.
Placing implants after a mastectomy is very different than putting in implants for cosmetic augmentation. When women have a cosmetic augmentation, their skin and breast tissue is left intact. These healthy tissues are better able to stretch and accommodate the breast implant. During a mastectomy, the breast surgeon needs to remove some skin along with the nipple/ areola complex. This skin deficit does not usually allow for an immediate implant placement. There are some cases where the breast surgeon will leave the nipple/ areolar complex.  Immediate implant placement can be done, however we are limited in the size of implant with this option and symmetry with the contralateral breast is not always achieved.

I may need chemotherapy, can I still have implants?
Women who need chemotherapy after the mastectomy are still candidates for implants. Sometimes we need to adjust the surgery date based on your chemotherapy schedule. For example, we will postpone your second stage surgery (to remove tissue expanders and place the implants) until you have recovered from your chemotherapy. Your plastic surgeon and medical oncologist will decide in what is best for you. Women undergoing chemotherapy may also take longer to heal from incisions. The impact of this is normal and expected.

I may need (or have already had) radiation to my breast area. Can I still have implants?
Radiation on implants is something that needs to be discussed carefully with your surgeon. It is true that women who have implants and radiation are at higher risk for complications, such as capsular contracture and implant loss.

What do I need to do for surgery?
Once you have decided to undergo mastectomy and reconstruction, you will need to decide what type of reconstruction you desire. You will then need to contact your surgeons to let them know you are ready to schedule your procedure. A pre-operative appointment will be set up for you in which you will need pre-operative blood work and other studies. Sometimes, you will require medical or cardiology clearance.

If you choose mastectomy and tissue expander/implant reconstruction, you should plan to be in the hospital one to two days with recovery at home of approximately four weeks. You can expect your first tissue expansion at two weeks post-operatively. Exchange of the tissue expansion for implant will occur around three months after your final expansion, but this may vary depending on if you need chemotherapy or radiation.

How long will I be out of work for?
For implant reconstruction, most women take four weeks off following the mastectomy and placement of the tissue expanders and one week off of work after the second surgery (removal of the tissue expanders and placement of the permanent implant). Many women are able to return to work during the tissue expansion process.

For tissue flap reconstruction, women generally take four to six weeks off of work.

When can I drive?
It is safe to resume driving when all drains are out (more about these below), when you are off all prescription pain medication and when you have regained safe range of motion of your arms. For most women, this is about three or four weeks after the mastectomy surgery.

Tell me about the surgical drains.
Drains are placed under the skin during surgery to remove what fluids the body produces after surgery. The drain looks like a narrow plastic tubing that connects to a drainage bulb, which is the size of a closed fist. The drains expedite the drainage process and help decrease the chance of a seroma or fluid collection. You will go home with drains. On average, drains may stay in one to three weeks. You will usually have two drains underneath the arms on the side of your mastectomy. If you use your own tissue, you will have two drains in the abdominal area as well. The drains are easy to care for. You and your family members will be taught how to care for them while you are in the hospital. Generally you will need to strip the tubing to make sure the tube stays open and empty the fluid into a measuring cup. You will need to keep track of the 24 hour total of fluid from each drain.

What activity limitation do I have?
While the drains are in, you cannot take a bath or submerge yourself into water. You may shower with drains. You should limit reaching and excessive stretching of your arms immediately after your mastectomy. Once the drains from your breast are removed, you may be given limited exercises to start, generally range of motion exercises. If you have tissue taken from your abdomen, you will not be able to lift anything more than five pounds (a gallon of milk) or do any strenuous exercises for six weeks. Walking is fine and can actually speed up your recovery.

What if I am not happy with the shape or size of my reconstructed breast after the surgery?
Revision of the breast can be done after you are healed from the primary reconstruction surgery.  There are techniques that the plastic surgeon can do to improve the shape and size of the reconstructed breast to achieve a better symmetry with the other breast; or if both breasts are reconstructed, with each other.  Depending on whether implants or a flap was used in the reconstruction, options can include:

  • Fat grafting- taking fat from somewhere else on the body, usually the abdomen or thighs, using liposuction and injecting it into the breast flap or around the implant.
  • Excision or removal of extra skin or fatty tissue- to make the breast flap smaller or less bulky.
  • Placing an implant under the breast flap- similar to a breast augmentation using saline or silicone implants.

How do you make my other breast look like the reconstructed breast and is this covered by insurance?
Once you are completely healed from the breast reconstruction and finished with all of the revision surgeries, your other breast is shaped to match the reconstructed breast. This can be done by reducing the size of the breast with performing a breast reduction or possibly increasing the size of the breast with a breast augmentation using implants.  If the breast is drooping, we may also lift the breast to match the height of the reconstructed breast.  You will never achieve complete symmetry however, we can try to match the breasts as close as possible using all of the above options. These procedures are all covered by insurance.