How do surgeons use tissue from a woman’s own body to reconstruct the breast?
In autologous tissue reconstruction, a piece of tissue containing skin, fat, blood vessels, and sometimes muscle is taken from elsewhere in a woman’s body and used to rebuild the breast. This piece of tissue is called a flap.
Different sites in the body can provide flaps for breast reconstruction. Flaps used for breast reconstruction most often come from the abdomen or back. However, they can also be taken from the thigh or buttocks.
Depending on their source, flaps can be pedicled or free.
- With a pedicled flap, the tissue and attached blood vessels are moved together through the body to the breast area. Because the blood supply to the tissue used for reconstruction is left intact, blood vessels do not need to be reconnected once the tissue is moved.
- With free flaps, the tissue is cut free from its blood supply. It must be attached to new blood vessels in the breast area, using a technique called microsurgery. This gives the reconstructed breast a blood supply.
Abdominal and back flaps include:
- DIEP flap: Tissue comes from the abdomen and contains only skin, blood vessels, and fat, without the underlying muscle. This type of flap is a free flap.
- Latissimus dorsi (LD) flap: Tissue comes from the middle and side of the back. This type of flap is pedicled when used for breast reconstruction. (LD flaps can be used for other types of reconstruction as well.)
- SIEA flap (also called SIEP flap): Tissue comes from the abdomen as in a DIEP flap but includes a different set of blood vessels. It also does not involve cutting of the abdominal muscle and is a free flap. This type of flap is not an option for many women because the necessary blood vessels are not adequate or do not exist.
- TRAM flap: Tissue comes from the lower abdomen as in a DIEP flap but includes muscle. It can be either pedicled or free.
Flaps taken from the thigh or buttocks are used for women who have had previous major abdominal surgery or who don’t have enough abdominal tissue to reconstruct a breast. These types of flaps are free flaps. With these flaps an implant is often used as well to provide sufficient breast volume.
- IGAP flap: Tissue comes from the buttocks and contains only skin, blood vessels, and fat.
- PAP flap: Tissue, without muscle, that comes from the upper inner thigh.
- SGAP flap: Tissue comes from the buttocks as in an IGAP flap, but includes a different set of blood vessels and contains only skin, blood vessels, and fat.
- TUG flap: Tissue, including muscle, that comes from the upper inner thigh.
In some cases, an implant and autologous tissue are used together. For example, autologous tissue may be used to cover an implant when there isn’t enough skin and muscle left after mastectomy to allow for expansion and use of an implant (1,2).
How do surgeons reconstruct the nipple and areola?
After the chest heals from reconstruction surgery and the position of the breast mound on the chest wall has had time to stabilize, a surgeon can reconstruct the nipple and areola. Usually, the new nipple is created by cutting and moving small pieces of skin from the reconstructed breast to the nipple site and shaping them into a new nipple. A few months after nipple reconstruction, the surgeon can re-create the areola. This is usually done using tattoo ink. However, in some cases, skin grafts may be taken from the groin or abdomen and attached to the breast to create an areola at the time of the nipple reconstruction (1).
Some women who do not have surgical nipple reconstruction may consider getting a realistic picture of a nipple created on the reconstructed breast from a tattoo artist who specializes in 3-D nipple tattooing.
A mastectomy that preserves a woman’s own nipple and areola, called nipple-sparing mastectomy, may be an option for some women, depending on the size and location of the breast cancer and the shape and size of the breasts (4,5).