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Plastic Surgery Can Help After Cancer Treatment. Here’s How

During the course of your cancer treatment, you may find yourself with scars that affect your body’s appearance or ability to function. Surgeries and other treatments can damage your skin and other body parts, adding an extra layer of difficulty to your cancer journey.

Fortunately, plastic surgery can often improve your appearance and restore function. Reconstructive procedures can be performed in conjunction with your cancer surgery – or at a later date.

Reconstructive Surgery Benefits

There are several considerations that will play into a decision to pursue reconstructive surgery. Among the most important is your overall health heading into the cancer surgery. If you have other medical issues, you may not be a good candidate to have the reconstructive procedure done on the same day as your cancer surgery. You may need time between procedures for your recovery.

Skin cancer and breast cancer represent the likeliest opportunities for reconstruction. Surgeries performed to fight those cancers often leave visible changes that patients may find disheartening or depressing.

This is particularly true in a place like Florida, where the climate encourages people to wear shorts and other more revealing clothes. Reducing scars and other visible changes can provide a mental boost and restore your confidence in social interactions.

Types of Reconstructive Surgery Procedures

As part of the planning for your procedure, your plastic surgeon will follow a set of rules known as the reconstructive ladder. This basically lays out the options in order of simplest (doing nothing) to most complex (tissue transfers). The goal is to find the least complex procedure that will yield a result that meets your expectations – following your consultation. Among the procedures that could be used:

Scar Revision: If you have visible wounds from a surgery, the surgeon can use one or a combination of techniques to hide or minimize the scar’s visibility. This could include injectable fillers to fill depressed or concave scars, mechanical polishing (dermabrasion) of the skin and special incision-closing techniques to reduce scarring from deep cuts.

Adjacent Tissue Transfer (Local Flap Reconstruction): Smaller wounds can be covered by your surgeon, using a flap of healthy skin located next to the lesion site. The technique allows for uninterrupted blood flow, since the skin flap is not completely severed from its original position.

Breast Reconstruction: After a mastectomy, you may choose to have breast reconstruction. This can be done with saline or silicone implants or with tissue taken from somewhere else on your body. The procedure includes the recreation of a nipple and areola if they were not preserved during the mastectomy. Breast reconstruction often happens immediately following the mastectomy but can also be delayed for months or years.

Skin Grafts: During treatment for skin cancer, your doctor may need to remove a patch of skin large enough that the remaining tissue cannot be stretched to cover the wound site. Your plastic surgeon can take healthy skin from somewhere else on your body and graft it over the wound.

Microvascular Free Tissue Transfer (Free Flap Surgery): When a significant tumor is removed, this procedure can replace larger sections of lost or damaged skin. Your plastic surgeon will take a section of skin with healthy nerves and blood vessels and attach it to the wound site. Key to this surgery is reconnecting the blood vessels to keep blood flowing to the transferred skin flap.

Bone Graft and Tendon Transfer: In rare instances (during surgery for bone cancer, for example), your surgeon may need to remove muscle tissue, tendons and bone from a limb. Reconstructive surgery can help restore lost function using healthy bone and tendons.

Benefits of Timing

For anyone considering adding a reconstructive surgeon to their cancer treatment team, a key decision is when to have the additional procedure performed. Some patients prefer to have months or even years between procedures. But if you are healthy enough, it’s often possible to have both procedures done at the same time, with the reconstructive surgeon stepping in as soon as the cancer surgery is completed.

Patients who choose to have both procedures on the same day are often more satisfied with the process. With breast cancer patients, for example, it means getting everything over with on the same day. It can mean a quicker return to normal life – instead of having to make plans for a second life-disrupting procedure. Yet in other cases, there may be benefits from taking some time to evaluate options after evaluating the impact of the cancer surgery.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Your plastic surgeon can help you decide what’s best for you.

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