The real truth about mastectomy surgery and breast reconstruction

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Angelina Jolie has undergone the operation, but what does it really entail? Find out now...

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Women go through mastectomy surgery and reconstruction on a daily basis, but Angelina Jolie's recent experience has brought the issue to the forefront.

Women with the BRAC1 and BRAC2 gene are often encouraged to have a preventative double mastectomy to reduce their risk of developing life-threatening cancer. On the other hand, women who are undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer often have little choice but to have their breasts removed.

You can find out more about genetic risks of breast cancer here.

We all know a mastectomy means removing the breast, but there's a lot more too it than that. If you want to know the facts about mastectomy surgery and breast reconstruction (something that Angelina Jolie has also had) carry on reading...

What's involved in a mastectomy operation?

Not all cancer results in a mastectomy, but it is often the safest option for women who want to reduce the risk of cancer cells reaching the lymph nodes (which can transport those cells around the body). There are several different types of mastectomy and the type of surgery normally depends on how much the cancer has spread.

All of the breast tissue is removed - this includes tissue from under the armpits, between the ribs and, of course, the breast itself.

Is the surgery dangerous?

Mastectomies are normally considered to be safe procedures with minimal complications. Most people recover well and it's common to only stay in hospital for one night. Recovery takes anywhere between three and six weeks and tubes are often connected to the wound to drain blood and fluids to prevent swelling and infection.

What happens next?

According to the NHS, it is common to experience pain, numbness, tingling and swelling after a mastectomy. In rare cases more serious complications can occur, but this can be treated by medical professionals.

What is a reconstruction?

After the breasts (one or both) have been removed patients have the option to have a breast reconstruction, which creates artificial breasts (or breast mounds) from muscle tissue or prosthetics. Instead of more surgery, lots of women who have lost one breast choose to have a flat chest and wear a prosthesis in specially made bras. Both options are available and it's up to the individual to decide what's best for them.

Sometimes a reconstruction is carried out at the same time as a mastectomy, but this isn't always possible, especially if the patient is still undergoing treatment.

How does a reconstruction work?

There are two main types of reconstruction; prosthetic reconstruction, where artificial implants are used, and autogenous, where tissue from elsewhere in the woman's body is used to create the breast mound.

Prosthetic surgery is quicker and implants are expandable, which means they can be slowly enlarged to the right size over a period of three to six months - allowing the skin to stretch gradually.

In an autogenous implant, tissue is moved from the back, buttocks, thighs or abdomen to the chest. It is shaped under the skin to make the new breast. This is major surgery and often requires a long stay in hospital. People who go down this route will be left with scars and the new breast is likely to change shape and size in the first few months.

Once the recovery period is over, surgeons can perform a nipple reconstruction (as nipples are breast tissue they need to be removed too). This can involve tattooing colour on to the skin or taking part of a remaining nipple and attaching that to the reconstructed breast.

A final word...

Every woman has the chance to talk to a surgeon and find out what option suits them. For more information, click here.

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