Reconstructive microsurgery offers hope for breast cancer patients

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to focus public attention on the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. It is also a time to raise awareness about breast reconstruction options for the 3.1 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

While many women are aware that breast implants can be used for reconstruction, questions over breast implant safety and concerns for their aesthetic outcomes are mounting. Through the reconstructive microsurgery program at Wright-Patterson Medical Center, women like Jane Esprit, Wendy Croft and Jennifer Grove, have more options than ever before to use their own tissues, rather than implants, for a natural breast reconstruction that is truly their own.

Esprit, Croft and Grove were all diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and through different paths, had breast reconstruction at Wright-Patterson Medical Center using their own tissues. During the surgery, the skin and fat at the lower abdomen is removed without affecting the abdominal muscles and “transplanted” to the chest to replace the breast tissue that was removed.

“Essentially with this surgery, we do a transplant utilizing a patient’s own tissues, without impacting a patient’s abdominal strength, and use that tissue to mold a new, natural appearing breast,” says plastic surgeon Maj. (Dr.) Nickolay Markov. “This is commonly referred to as a deep inferior epigastric perforators, or DIEP, flap.”

Esprit, Croft, and Grove met to discuss and share their remarkable experiences with this procedure.

Esprit began her breast cancer journey in 2010. She had a double mastectomy, reconstruction using breast implants and required radiation therapy. As time passed, she began to experience discomfort and noted an unnatural appearance to the breasts. These concerns were uncorrected despite numerous operations to revise the implants.

“There wasn’t much offered at that time,” she said. “My implants were not fitted to my body well and were just uncomfortable.”

Fortuitously, Esprit came under the care of plastic surgeons Lt. Col. Justin Fox and Markov, and her confidence rose when she learned that DIEP flap reconstruction may offer relief.

“It was comforting to know that the tissue used in the procedure was my own,” she said. “It was a difficult surgery and a lengthy recovery, but I am 100 percent confident I made the right decision,” Espirit said. “I haven’t been this happy in a long time!”

Croft had a one-sided mastectomy at a medical center in Georgia after a breast cancer diagnosis in 2016. She was not referred to a plastic surgeon before surgery and, therefore, not offered breast reconstruction. Once she healed from her mastectomy, she struggled to find a provider willing to offer her breast reconstruction.

For three years, Croft went without reconstruction as she moved from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, to Fort Belvoir, Virginia. At Wright-Patterson Medical Center, she underwent DIEP flap surgery and is now excited to finally “feel whole again.” Now, successfully recovering from her surgery, Croft wholeheartedly believes that her patience has paid off.

“I am so thankful for Wright-Patterson plastic surgeons,” she said. “It was the best decision. The doctors made me feel so at ease and I knew this is where I needed to do it.”

Unlike Croft’s prolonged experience, everything happened in a whirlwind for Grove. After finding a breast lump in November 2018, she called the surgery clinic at Wright-Patterson to evaluate her concerns. She was able to schedule an appointment the same day and had an ultrasound and biopsy that same week.

Grove first had a lumpectomy, where the tumor and a small area of surrounding breast tissue were surgically removed. But when the edges of the removed breast tissue still had evidence of cancer, she underwent a one sided mastectomy. At the same time as the mastectomy, the plastic surgery team performed her breast reconstruction by transplanting her abdominal tissues.

Grove stayed only three days in the hospital and then completed chemotherapy and radiation in the following months.

“I got through it all with my family and my faith and wonderful, caring doctors,” said Grove.

Now, she is ecstatic with the results and is confident in her body image.

“Having my own tissue in my own body and not implants appealed to me,” she said. “It feels natural. I have no doubt I did the right thing.”

Numerous women like Esprit, Croft and Grove have been treated by the advanced reconstructive surgery program at Wright-Patterson Medical Center. This program is supported by Fox, who joins from the University of Pennsylvania, and Markov, who trained in microsurgical breast reconstruction at Yale University. Their goal is to provide patients the full spectrum of reconstruction, from implants to tissue-based options, so that women have the opportunity to decide which options are best for them.

For more information about breast reconstruction or to schedule a consultation, contact the Wright-Patterson Medical Center, 88th Medical Group Plastic Surgery Clinic at 937-257-9922.

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