Breast reconstruction begins with placement of a breast implant or tissue expander, either at the time of your mastectomy surgery (immediate reconstruction) or during a later procedure (delayed reconstruction). Breast reconstruction often requires multiple operations, even if you choose immediate reconstruction.
A breast implant is a round or teardrop-shaped silicone shell filled with salt water (saline) or silicone gel. Once restricted because of safety concerns, silicone gel implants are now considered safe.
A plastic surgeon places the implant behind the muscle in your chest (pectoral muscle). Some women are able to have the permanent breast implant placed at the time of the mastectomy. However, most women require a two-stage process, using a tissue expander before the permanent implant is placed.
Tissue expansion is a process that stretches your remaining chest skin and soft tissues to make room for the breast implant. Your surgeon places a balloon-like tissue expander under your pectoral muscle at the time of your mastectomy. Over the next few months, through a small valve under your skin, your doctor or nurse uses a needle to inject saline into the valve, filling the balloon in stages.
This gradual process allows the skin to stretch over time. You'll go to your doctor every week or two to have the saline injected. You may experience some discomfort or pressure as the implant expands.
After the tissue is adequately expanded, your surgeon performs a second surgery to remove the tissue expander and replace it with a permanent implant. Some tissue expanders are designed to be left in place, so the second operation may be less extensive.
You may be tired and sore for a few weeks after surgery. Your doctor can prescribe medication to control your pain.
Getting back to normal activities may take six weeks or longer. Take it easy during this period.
Your doctor will let you know of restrictions to your activities, such as avoiding overhead lifting or strenuous physical activities. Don't be surprised if it seems to take a long time to bounce back from surgery — it may take as long as a year or two to feel completely healed.
Generally, you'll follow up with your plastic surgeon on a yearly basis to monitor your reconstructed breast. Make an appointment sooner than that, however, if you have any concerns about your reconstruction.
Breast reconstruction may also entail reconstruction of your nipple, if you choose, including tattooing to define the dark area of skin surrounding your nipple (areola).
Future breast cancer screening
If you've only had one breast reconstructed, you'll need to have screening mammography done regularly on your other breast. Mammography isn't necessary on breasts that have been reconstructed.
You may opt to perform breast self-exams on your natural breast and the skin and surrounding area of your reconstructed breast. This may help you become familiar with the changes to your breast after surgery so that you can be alert to any new changes and report those to your doctor.