I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What are my options so that I can still have breasts?

Q. I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. What are my options so that I can still have breasts?

A. We’re not doctors and we don’t provide medical advice, but I can tell you what we know based on research and from speaking with many experts and with women who have had breast implants.

If you have been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer (stage I, IIa, IIb, or IIIa) , you probably can keep your breasts, and have a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy (which removes the entire breast). Early-stage breast cancer patients who undergo a lumpectomy (which removes only the cancer and a small area around it) that is followed by radiation will live just as long as women who have a mastectomy instead. The experts recommend a lumpectomy with radiation for most women because it is less traumatic physically and emotionally, and avoids the problems from reconstructing a breast. For more information about this, see a booklet printed by the National Cancer Institute, the NIH, AHRQ, and the National Research Center for Women & Families at http://www.center4research.org/breast-cancer-booklet.html.

If you have been diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition such as Stage 0 breast cancer, including ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) or lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), it is very unlikely that you need a mastectomy. Women with LCIS do not have breast cancer and most will never get breast cancer. They do not need a mastectomy or even a lumpectomy, although they do need regular mammograms. Most women with DCIS can choose lumpectomy with radiation, rather than mastectomy. For more information, see http://www.center4research.org/pdf/dcis-lcis_10-04.pdf.

For women with breast cancer who want to have breasts, the preferred choice is usually to keep their breasts (rather than remove their breasts and create new ones). Although a lumpectomy can make the breast smaller or change the shape, it will still have the sensation of a natural breast. In contrast, a woman who has a mastectomy with reconstruction, either with implants or with tissue transferred from elsewhere in her body, will have “breast shapes” that do not have any feeling. They are numb. Reconstruction also requires at least two surgeries. Reconstructed breasts may look fuller or “younger” but when the options are explained to them, many women would prefer to have sensation in their breast (or breasts), and would prefer not to have to worry about complications and the need for additional surgery.

If a woman needs to have a mastectomy, because the DCIS has spread throughout the breast or the cancer is large, there are several choices for reconstruction: saline breast implants, silicone breast implants, and moving tissue to create a new breast, such as a TRAM flap (Transverse Rectus Abdominis Myocutaneous flap) or DIEP flap (Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator flap).

Many plastic surgeons know how to reconstruct breasts using breast implants, but few are skilled at moving tissue (which is called autologous tissue transfer). That is one of the reasons why so many plastic surgeons recommend breast implants.

Saline or Silicone? Some surgeons prefer silicone gel breast implants to saline, because they feel more natural. However, saline breast implants are approved by the FDA as “reasonably safe” and silicone gel implants are not. That is why women getting silicone gel breast implants must agree to be in a study. The goal is to find out how many complications or problems arise in these women in order to decide whether they are safe enough to approve. You would be part of an experiment to find out if the implants are “safe enough” for other women.

One problem with silicone breast implants is that they can break without a patient knowing it. Although less embarrassing than an instant deflation (which is likely with saline), breakage without symptoms is a bad thing, not a good thing. If silicone gel breast implants break and leak, the silicone can get into lymph nodes and travel to the lungs, liver, and brain. No research has been done on those risks, but a study by scientists at the National Cancer Institute found that women with breast implants were twice as likely to die from brain cancer or lung cancer compared to other plastic surgery patients. More research is needed, but those findings are cause for concern.

If saline implants break they are usually easy to remove. If silicone implants break, they can leak and can be extremely difficult and expensive to remove carefully. For that reason, we believe that saline are safer than silicone, even though both have very high complication rates.

Risks. All breast implants, even saline implants, are enveloped in an outer shell made of silicone. The envelope also contains other chemicals and heavy metals, such as microscopic amounts of platinum or tin, which vary during the manufacturing process. Unfortunately, some women have a reaction to those substances. Although silicone is considered “biocompatible” and most people don’t have an immediate allergic or autoimmune response, some people do, and many more develop a response years later.

It’s impossible to predict who will have problems with breast implants, and who won’t. It’s important to know that all implants will eventually break, sometimes within a few months or years, and usually within 10 years. Sometimes women who have a mastectomy get breast implants to replace one breast and to make the other breast look more similar to the replaced breast. However, it’s important to know that either silicone or saline breast implants interfere with mammograms. They show up white on the film, hiding tumors that are above or below.

Alternatives to Implants. An alternative to breast implants is “autologous tissue transfer,” such as the TRAM flap and DIEP flap procedures. These procedures use a woman’s own fat and tissue is used to reconstruct the breast. Many women prefer it to implants because it feels more natural and apparently lasts for a very long time (possibly forever, although the procedure has mostly been done in the last 15 years so it’s impossible to say). However, both the TRAM flap and DIEP flap procedures are more expensive than implants, require an especially skilled surgeon for a good result, and the healing process usually takes at least several months and can be painful. Women are only able to get this surgery if they have enough body fat in their abdomen area or back to form breasts. And, like a breast implant reconstruction, the breast has no feeling. For a woman who has the tissue transferred from her abdomen area (in an operation that has been compared to a “tummy tuck”), there is some loss of muscle in that area. That can be a problem for athletic women, but many other women don’t mind.

The DIEP flap is a similar type of reconstruction but does not remove any muscle. Instead, for the DIEP flap, the surgeon only removes fat and other tissue and makes a small cut in the abdominal muscle. Since no part of the abdominal muscle is removed, patients are able to maintain abdominal strength, making this surgery a better option for most women, especially those who are physically active.

Fortunately, TRAM flaps and DIEP flaps are covered by some health insurance companies. These are complicated surgeries with long recovery times and you would need to find a physician who is very experienced doing these procedures, and we highly recommend asking the doctor to put you in touch with other patients who were happy with the reconstruction.

The comments and statements of the National Research Center for Women & Families are believed and intended to be accurate, and where applicable, based on scientific literature. NRC’s statements do not constitute medical diagnoses, medical advice, plans of treatment, or legal opinion, and we are not responsible for the use or application of this information. All medical information should be reviewed with your health care practitioner.

We hope that the information we’ve provided is helpful. In order to maintain this free service to all women and their families, we invite your tax-deductible contributions to NRC (see http://www.center4research.org/contribute1.html)

Back to the Breast Reconstruction Ask Us Your Questions e-mail form.