Should I Get Breast Reconstruction Surgery?

A woman who has surgery to treat breast cancer might choose to have additional surgery to rebuild the shape and look of her breast. This is called breast reconstruction surgery. If you are thinking about having this done, it is best to talk about it with your surgeon and a plastic surgeon experienced in breast reconstruction before you have surgery to remove the tumor or breast. This lets the surgical teams plan the best treatment for you, even if you decide to wait and have reconstructive surgery later.

Reasons for breast reconstruction

A woman might choose to have breast reconstruction for many reasons:

  • To make her chest look balanced when she is wearing a bra or swimsuit
  • To help make clothes fit better
  • To permanently regain her breast shape
  • So she won’t have to use a breast form that fits inside the bra (an external prosthesis)
  • To feel better about her body

Breast reconstruction often leaves scars, but they usually fade over time. Newer techniques have also reduced the amount of scarring. When you’re wearing a bra, your breasts should be alike enough in size and shape to let you feel comfortable about how you look in most types of clothes.

After a mastectomy, breast reconstruction can make you feel better about how you look and renew your self-confidence. But keep in mind that the reconstructed breast will not be a perfect match or substitute for your natural breast. If tissue from your tummy, back, or buttocks was used as part of the reconstruction, those areas will also look different after surgery. Talk with your surgeon about scars and changes in shape or contour. Ask where they will be, and how they will look and feel after they heal.

Risks of breast reconstruction

Common potential side effects and risks of reconstruction surgery can be found in What to Expect After Breast Reconstruction Surgery.

Certain types of breast implants can be linked to a rare kind of cancer, known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) which is not a type of breast cancer. It is sometimes referred to as breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL). This lymphoma develops around 8 to 10 years after the implant was placed and more often if the implants have textured (rough) surfaces rather than smooth surfaces.  If ALCL does show up after an implant, it can show as  a collection of fluid near the implant, a lump, pain, swelling or asymmetry (uneven breasts).

Early-stage disease is often treated by surgical removal of the implant and capsule while more advanced disease requires chemotherapy. Radiation may be used in certain cases.

Prognosis (outcome) is usually better in women with early-stage disease.

Can breast reconstruction hide cancer or make it come back?

Studies show that reconstruction does not make breast cancer come back. If the cancer does come back, reconstructed breasts should not cause problems finding the cancer or treating it.  

If you are thinking about breast reconstruction, either with an implant or flap, you need to know that reconstruction rarely, hides a return of breast cancer. You should not consider this a big risk when deciding to have breast reconstruction.

Some important things to think about

  • You might have a choice between having breast reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy (immediate reconstruction) or later (delayed reconstruction).
  • Some women don’t want to make decisions about reconstruction while being treated for their breast cancer. If this is the case, you might choose to wait until after your breast cancer surgery to decide about reconstruction.
  • You might not want to have more surgery than is absolutely needed.
  • Not all reconstructive surgery is a total success, and the result might not look the way you’d hoped.
  • The cancer surgery and reconstruction surgery will leave scars on your breast and any areas where tissue was moved to create the new breast mound, such as the buttocks, tummy, or back areas.
  • A rebuilt breast will not have the same feelings as the natural breast. Sometimes, it may have little or no feeling at all. The donor sites the tissue was taken from to rebuild the breast might also lose some sensation. Over time, the skin might become more sensitive, but it won’t feel the same as it did before the surgery.
  • You might have extra concerns if you tend to bleed or scar more than most people.
  • Breast skin or flaps might not survive after reconstructive surgery. This tissue death is called necrosis. If it happens, healing is delayed and more surgery is often needed to fix the problem.
  • Healing could be affected by previous surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. It can also be affected by smoking, diabetes, some medicines, and other factors.
  • Surgeons might suggest you wait to have reconstruction, especially if you smoke or have other health problems. It’s best to quit smoking at least 2 months before reconstructive surgery to allow for better healing. You might not be able to have reconstruction at all if you are obese, too thin, or have blood circulation problems.
  • The surgeon might suggest surgery to reshape your other breast to match the reconstructed breast. This could include reducing or enlarging its size, or even surgically lifting the breast.
  • If it’s known at the time of diagnosis that a woman will need radiation as part of her treatment, the types of immediate reconstruction surgery she can have might be limited. Certain types of reconstruction done before radiation can cause problems and lower the chances the rebuilt breast will look and feel as natural as possible, after the radiation is given.  You should discuss your best options with your surgeon before surgery.
  • Knowing your reconstruction options before surgery can help you have more realistic expectations for the outcomes.

Help and support from someone who’s been there

No matter which options you choose, it’s important to know that there is advice and support out there to help you  understand your reconstruction options as well as cope with the changes you’re going through if you have chosen reconstruction. Speaking with your doctor or other members of your health care team is often a good starting point. If you would like to talk with someone who has had your type of reconstruction, ask about our Reach to Recovery®program. Reach To Recovery volunteers are breast cancer survivors trained to support others facing breast cancer, as well as those who are thinking about having breast reconstruction. They can give you suggestions, reading material, and advice. Ask your doctor or nurse to refer you to a volunteer or program in your area, or call us at 1-800-227-2345.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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Last Medical Review: September 18, 2019 Last Revised: September 18, 2019

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