Dr. Jones: When women have had breast cancer surgery, the major surgery such as a mastectomy, they are often looking forward to living their lives and getting their body back. What are the new steps and what are the things that we have here at the Huntsman that will really help them make this difficult decision? How do we make the decision, and who is the team involved?
We are in the office of Dr. Agarwal here at the Huntsman Hospital with a beautiful view out the back door of people living their lives. I want to talk about how women who have had mastectomies make the decision to live their lives going forward as they make the transition from a cancer victim to a cancer survivor. We're talking about breast reconstruction here with Dr. Agarwal, plastic surgeon and reconstructive surgeon here at the Huntsman Hospital.
Single Vs. Double Mastectomy
Let's talk a little bit about women who request the bilateral mastectomy. Of course, there are women with BRCA mutations, mutations that increase their risk of cancer. They don't have cancer yet, but both of their breasts are going to be involved so that's pretty easy to understand. How about if a woman has breast cancer on one side and wants the other one done? Does insurance pay for that?
Dr. Agarwal: Not always. We're seeing an increased demand, if you will, in patients who want to have the contralateral breast removed. A lot of times, this is driven by fear of developing cancer in the other breast. Oftentimes, it's driven by the desire to have symmetry and it's not a guarantee that your insurance will pay for this. More and more, we're seeing that insurance wants to really focus on the breast that has cancer and may not always pay for removal and reconstruction of the other breast.
But any time a patient has these concerns or desires to have both breasts removed, it requires a good discussion with their doctors, their oncologists, their surgeons because while things like symmetry may be improved in some cases, there are also potential consequences to having your other breast removed. You lose sensation of an otherwise normal and healthy breast. Just like with any other surgeries, there is the risk of potential complications by adding more surgery time or more operations.
Support Groups for Breast Cancer Survivors
Dr. Jones: And if women are young enough that they might want to consider having children if they get past their diagnosis and are cured, then they couldn't breastfeed if they have bilateral reconstruction and that has to be discussed. There is so much on the Internet about the pros and cons, but are there other women that someone can talk to? Do you have support groups of women who have made decisions and how they worked through their decisions? How do women go about finding out more information?
Dr. Agarwal: There are definitely support groups here at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital. There are teams of patients who have offered their services to other patients because they've gone through this process in the past and they give the whole picture, the good and the bad of going through this process. Throughout the Salt Lake community, there are organizations that provide a lot of information to patients, including Susan Komen's Foundation. So there are definitely support groups. I think that it is a very personal decision in the end and I think that a frank conversation with your medical team and your family is important when finally making these types of decisions.
Choices for Nipple Reconstruction
Dr. Jones: Let's talk briefly about nipple reconstruction. I've heard that you have an amazing tattoo artist here at the Huntsman who might be able to even tattoo a nipple or are you using other tissues for nipple reconstruction?
Dr. Agarwal: First of all, we do have a great tattoo artist here at the University of Utah and Huntsman Cancer Hospital, but there are different ways of reconstructing a nipple. We can actually use some of a patient's own tissue to create the nipple itself and then tattoo the areola around it. And another option is to purely use tattooing. Some of the tattoo artists can create 3D tattoos of a nipple, which looks amazing. They look like real nipples that have projection even though they're flat on the surface of the skin.
Dr. Jones: That must be very gratifying to have the ability to give a woman that gift, not only as a reconstructive surgeon to give the gift of having symmetry and a self-image that will carry her forward as she works through her recovery but even having the ancillary staff that can help her through that like the tattoos and the counselors and therapists and all of the people, a whole team that can take care of people.
Dr. Agarwal: It's absolutely gratifying to see a patient go through this process and come out feeling whole again and feeling like they can get past or move beyond their initial diagnosis of cancer, and that's really the goal is to help them move forward in life.
updated: June 8, 2021
originally published: October 22, 2015
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