Breast Reconstruction

Memorial Sloan Kettering plastic and reconstructive surgeon Andrea Pusic

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer or are planning to have a preventive mastectomy, you’ll want to know about breast reconstructive surgery to decide if it’s right for you. Breast reconstruction can be done in a variety of ways to rebuild your breast or breasts.

Discuss your options with your breast surgeon and plastic surgeon as soon as possible if you’re considering breast reconstruction. It’s important to understand how the type of surgery you have can influence your reconstructive options.

It’s common — and normal — to feel anxious, stressed, frightened, or even mournful about losing a breast. You may wonder how it will affect your body image, sex life, and self-confidence, and how you will look in clothes. As you weigh your options, use this guide to learn about the latest ways to reconstruct the breast and what’s involved in each procedure.

Back to top

What’s the best time to have breast reconstruction?

It’s possible to have breast reconstructive surgery any time after a mastectomy — even years later. Many women, however, choose to start reconstruction at the same time as their breast cancer surgery. This is known as immediate reconstruction. Your doctor will help you make this decision. The benefits include avoiding a second hospital stay, not having to undergo anesthesia twice to start the reconstruction process, and smaller breast scars. Some women say that having immediate reconstruction made losing a breast feel less traumatic. But either option may be right for you.

Back to top

What are the first steps in breast reconstruction?

The first step is deciding what type of breast reconstruction is right for you. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to rebuild the breast: using a synthetic implant or using tissue from another part of your body (often called flap surgery). If only one breast is affected, your doctors may recommend having some kind of surgery on the other breast — such as a breast lift, breast reduction, or breast augmentation — to help match both breasts as closely as possible.

Discuss the pros and cons of each reconstruction option with your doctors. The right choice for you can depend on your age, health, body type, breast size, the location of your cancer, the stage of your cancer, your lifestyle, and your personal preferences.

Learn more about how to decide between implants and flap surgery.

Back to top

How can my own tissues or flaps be used for breast reconstruction (autologous reconstruction)?

Tissue-transfer breast reconstruction, flap breast reconstruction, and autologous reconstruction are surgeries in which tissue from another part of a woman’s body is used to reconstruct her breast after a mastectomy. “Autologous” is the medical term for someone’s own tissues.

Back to top

What is flap breast reconstruction? 

There are two ways to do tissue flap surgery. In one, a flap of tissue is moved to the chest along with its original blood supply; this is a pedicle flap. For free flap, which is the second option, the tissue is disconnected from its original blood supply and reconnected to blood vessels in the chest. The vast majority of tissue flap breast reconstructions performed at MSK are free flaps.

Eutha's Story
When community activist and mother Eutha Prince needed breast reconstruction, her MSK surgeon recommended a flap procedure. Now Eutha says she couldn’t be happier with the way she looks.
Learn more

There are several types of tissue flap surgery. They are named for the part of the body where the tissue comes from:

  • DIEP (deep inferior epigastric perforator) flap refers to the use of excess lower abdominal skin and fat to reconstruct the breast. The incision for this procedure is similar to an abdominoplasty (a “tummy tuck”). Your plastic surgeon sculpts the excess skin and fat that is removed to recreate the breast. The name for this procedure is derived from the blood vessels that provide nutrients to the tissue. These blood vessels are disconnected from the abdomen and reconnected to blood vessels in the breast by your plastic surgeon using a microscope.
  • Muscle-sparing TRAM (transverse abdominus myocutaneous) flap is similar to a DIEP flap. In this procedure, however, a small segment of the abdominal muscle is kept connected to the blood vessels that are moved. This procedure is occasionally used in patients who have very small blood vessels or who have had previous abdominal scars.
  • SIEA (superficial inferior epigastric artery) flap is also similar to a DIEP flap, but in this case, a different set of blood vessels is used to resupply the abdominal tissues. This blood supply is present in some patients but not others.
  • TUG (transverse upper gracilis) flap uses tissue and muscle from the inner upper thigh. The scar is hidden in the natural groin crease.
  • DUG (diagonal upper gracilis) flap is very similar to a TUG flap except that in DUG, the scar is angled diagonally.
  • Gluteal free flap uses tissue from the upper or lower buttocks for breast reconstruction.
  • PAP (profunda artery perforator) flap uses tissue from the back of the thigh, just below the buttocks.

Learn more about flap surgery.

Back to top

What is breast implant surgery?

Breast implants come in a range of sizes and shapes. They are made of a flexible silicone outer shell that is filled with saline (sterile salt water) or with silicone gel (a semisolid or solid gelatinous material). Anatomical form-stable implants, also called “gummy bear implants,” contain very thick silicone gel that holds its shape even if the outer shell breaks. Most women choose silicone gel implants because they’re softer and feel more like the breast’s natural fatty tissue than saline implants.

Breast implant surgery is usually a two-step process. First, a tissue expander (an empty balloonlike plastic sac) is inserted under the chest (pectoral) muscles. Over several weeks, using a syringe, the bag is gradually inflated with saline to stretch the muscles and breast skin to the desired size. During a second, shorter surgery, the expander is removed and replaced with the saline or silicone gel breast implant. In some cases, the final implant can be placed immediately after a mastectomy, skipping the expander step.

Back to top

Are breast implants safe?

Yes, breast implants are safe. Both silicone gel and saline implants are FDA approved. Despite concerns raised many years ago that silicone gel implants might raise the risk for autoimmune diseases, such as lupus or arthritis, the FDA reports that studies of more than 80,000 women have not found any higher rates of these diseases in women with silicone gel implants. There is no evidence linking breast implants to an increased risk for breast cancer either.

Back to top

Will breast implants last the rest of my life?

Breast implants don’t last forever. An implant’s life span varies according to its type, design, and manufacturer. It may need to be removed or replaced due to leaking, an infection, or other complications. Your doctor may advise having periodic breast MRI imaging to check for implant failure.

Back to top

Can my nipple be saved?

Women who are having immediate reconstruction usually opt for a skin-sparing mastectomy. This means that most of the skin over the breast is left intact to create a shell that will cover the reconstructed breast. In some cases, surgeons can also save the nipple and areola  (the dark skin around the nipple). This is called a nipple-sparing mastectomy. If cancer has affected the nipple area or is located very close to the nipple, doctors will not be able to save it. The size and shape of a woman’s breasts may also affect whether or not surgeons can spare the nipple for reconstructive surgery. Saving the nipple does mean leaving a small amount of breast tissue underneath the nipple to provide it with a blood supply.

Back to top

What is nipple reconstruction?

If it’s not possible to save the nipple during a mastectomy, your plastic surgeon can create a new one after breast reconstruction by using the skin from the breasts. The areola can also be reconstructed using skin from another part of the body, such as the upper thigh or lower abdomen. Sometimes nipple reconstruction is performed simply with a 3-D tattoo, using shading and artistic techniques to recreate a natural-looking nipple.

Back to top

Can breast reconstruction be performed after a lumpectomy?

In many cases, a lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery) causes very little scarring or changes to the breast and reconstruction is not necessary. If the surgery is more involved, there are several ways to enhance the appearance of the breast. Options include a breast lift, breast reduction surgery, tissue rearrangement, and, in some cases, cosmetic plastic surgery on the other breast to make them look the same.

Back to top

What is fat injection or fat grafting?

Fat injection, also known as fat grafting, is another way to improve the appearance of the breast after cancer surgery. Using liposuction, fat is collected from another area of your body, then injected into any dimpled areas where the breast tissue has been removed to plump up the breast.

Back to top

What are microsurgery and supermicrosurgery?

Microsurgery and supermicrosurgery are types of surgery performed under a microscope. Tiny sutures (stitches) are used to reconnect the small blood vessels of a flap tissue to those in the breast so that the transferred tissue thrives and heals properly.

Back to top

What is recovery like after breast reconstruction?

Recovery time depends on which surgery you have:

  • After breast reconstruction using a tissue expander or an implant as the first step, you will need to take three to four weeks off from work to recover.
  • With natural-tissue flap reconstruction, recovery can take four to eight weeks, at which time most patients can resume their work and usual lifestyle.

However, complete healing from these procedures usually takes a few months.

Back to top

Will my breast be the same after breast reconstruction surgery?

Your new breast will not function like a normal breast. It will no longer be able to produce milk, and it won’t be sensitive to touch. But depending on the method of reconstruction, it can look similar to your other breast, especially in clothing.

Back to top

What are breast prostheses?

Some women choose not to have breast reconstruction after a mastectomy. Another option is wearing a breast prosthesis, an insert that tucks into a special pocket in a bra or swimsuit so that breasts look symmetrical. Breast prostheses are available in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and skin tones and in a variety of materials, including silicone gel, foam, and fiberfill.

Learn more about breast prostheses and postmastectomy bras.

Back to top

Why should I choose Memorial Sloan Kettering for breast reconstruction?

Our highly trained plastic and reconstructive surgeons are nationally or internationally recognized experts in all types of breast reconstructive surgery. The more than 2,000 breast reconstructions they do each year include immediate reconstruction, complex reconstructions done years after breast cancer treatment, and revision surgery on women whose original reconstruction was performed at other hospitals with unsatisfactory results.

MSK is a leader in developing new reconstructive techniques that provide improved cosmetic outcomes for our patients. Our doctors led the largest study to date of new sizes and shapes of implants specifically designed for reconstruction, leading to FDA approval of teardrop-shaped implants that better match the breast’s natural anatomy than the round devices often used for cosmetic breast enhancement. Our surgeons are also internationally recognized for microsurgical breast reconstruction using all the modern techniques available.

Choose MSK because we offer:

  • A dedicated oncoplastic program. Our goal is to improve cosmetic outcomes for patients who are undergoing treatment or have previously had a lumpectomy and radiation. Using tissue rearrangement, breast lift, breast reduction, or replacing missing breast tissue with fat from another part of the body help us achieve optimal aesthetic results. Learn more about our Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Service.
  • The latest breast reconstruction techniques. These include surgeries using new types of implants or tissue from other areas of your body, such as DIEP, SIEA, PAP, and TUG flap procedures. Our surgeons are highly skilled at new microsurgery and supermicrosurgery techniques that lead to superior outcomes and fewer complications for our patients. These results have been presented at a variety of national and international meetings and have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
  • A near perfect success rate. Thanks to our surgical expertise and vigilant monitoring of patients after their operations, we have a success rate of 99 percent for breast reconstructive tissue-transfer procedures.
  • Compassionate care from a team of experts before, during, and after your surgery. This includes skilled care from nurses who specialize in working with patients who are recovering from breast cancer surgery and breast reconstruction. They’ll care for you both at your bedside while you are in the hospital and in our surgeons’ offices as you recover to help deliver the best follow-up care during postsurgical checkups. Learn more about care after reconstructive surgery.
  • Rehabilitation and therapeutic exercise programs. We help you heal and return to a full, active life after breast reconstruction.
  • A dedication to optimal outcomes and high patient satisfaction. We track satisfaction and use those results to continuously improve our care. Our Breast-Q satisfaction questionnaire has now been adopted around the world.
  • Choices of breast prostheses and postmastectomy bras in the boutique at our Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center. The center also has a wide range of other services and treatments for breast cancer patients. They include surgical consultations and diagnostic imaging, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, integrative medicine doctors and nutritionists, and emotional support.
Back to top