ADVERTISEMENT

Information Please

Why aren't more women having breast reconstruction? 

BY CHARLOTTE HUFF
PUBLISHED TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2007
Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Breast CURE discussion group.
Sue Hadden flatly rejected her physician’s suggestion that she consult with a plastic surgeon prior to her mastectomy. “My reaction was, ‘I want [my breast] off. I don’t want any extra surgery. I just want to get on with my life,’ ” Hadden says, recalling those early days after her 2-centimeter stage 1 tumor was found. “I don’t think of myself as very vain. I think of plastic surgery as something you do when you’re vain.”

 But her oncology surgeon persisted, scheduling an appointment for Hadden. Over the next couple of weeks, the 50-year-old pediatric nurse from Michigan reviewed studies on surgical complications and talked to numerous breast cancer survivors—both those who had opted for and against reconstruction. “I went around and around,” she says. “I really, really struggled with this decision.”

In 2005, Hadden underwent a mastectomy of her left breast, along with immediate reconstruction. More than two years later, she describes the decision as “the right one” for her.

Among mastectomy patients, though, Hadden falls into a distinct minority. Nearly 51,200 women underwent a mastectomy between 1998 and 2002. But fewer than one in five eligible women, or 16.5 percent, chose immediate reconstruction, initiating the procedure within four months, according to data published in 2006 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The rates also didn’t change significantly from year to year, despite the passage of the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998. The federal law requires insurers, including group plans and individual plans, that cover mastectomy to also pay for reconstruction. State laws may provide additional protections.

The current reconstruction rate preoccupies Amy Alderman, MD, author of the JAMA analysis and several other recent studies on access to breast reconstruction. “Is it because not many women want it?” she asks. “Or, is there an access barrier?” Dr. Alderman, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School, performed Hadden’s reconstruction.

Access, if it is an issue, is likely not the only reason relatively few women select reconstruction, according to breast cancer clinicians interviewed. Women who are wrestling with complex treatment decisions may not have the energy to also sift through and select a reconstruction procedure. They may be reluctant to undergo the risks of additional surgery, or the scarring that can be involved. They may not place a particularly high priority on regaining cleavage, or they may worry about cost, despite broader insurance coverage requirements.

I consider reconstruction part of [the woman’s] psychological treatment for this disease. She was born with two breasts. She still can have two breasts.

Still, Lillie Shockney, RN, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center in Baltimore, wonders if too many women dismiss reconstruction without measured consideration. “I commonly hear women say, ‘I don’t want to ask for too much. I just want to live.’ Like they will jinx themselves,” says Shockney, a breast cancer survivor who chose reconstruction 10 years after her breast cancer surgery. “I tell women to look at the long view. How do you want to look and feel a year from now?

“I consider reconstruction part of [the woman’s] psychological treatment for this disease. She was born with two breasts. She still can have two breasts,” says Shockney.

Dr. Alderman’s JAMA analysis, based on National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) data, also revealed other trends, such as disparities among ethnic groups. In 2002, the most recent data analyzed, the immediate reconstruction rate was 11 percent for Hispanic women and 8.5 percent for Asian women compared with 17.7 percent for white women and 18.6 percent for African- American women, according to the study’s results. SEER doesn’t track reconstruction data beyond four months after mastectomy, Dr. Alderman says.

Neither do many surgeons routinely refer breast cancer patients for a plastic surgery consult prior to mastectomy, according to another study of Dr. Alderman’s, published earlier this year in the journal Cancer. Only 24 percent of 342 general surgeons surveyed in Detroit and Los Angeles referred more than 75 percent of their patients prior to surgery. (High referral surgeons were more likely to be female and handle a large number of breast surgery cases, among other factors.) Nearly half—44 percent—referred fewer than 25 percent to a plastic surgeon.

Overall, the general surgeons posed a variety of explanations for why they thought women might not be interested: reconstruction was not important (57 percent); reconstruction would take too long (39 percent); or cost of the procedure concerned them (46 percent). “I don’t think these physicians are bad people,” Dr. Alderman says. But they may not be working in a setting, such as an academic medical center or a multi-disciplinary cancer program, where referrals are easily accomplished, she says.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Breast CURE discussion group.
ADVERTISEMENT
Related Articles
Angelina Jolie, Knowledge Is Not Enough
Two years ago, Angelina Jolie Pitt told the world that she held the BRCA1 mutation.
 Practicing Stress Management Improves Long-Term Mood, Quality of Life in Women with Breast Cancer
BY CHRISTINA IZZO
Results of a follow up study have shown that when women were taught stress management techniques early in their breast cancer treatment, their mood and quality of life continued to improve up to 15 years later.
Birthdays Mark Milestones
BY TERRY ARNOLD
Inflammatory breast cancer survivor, Terry Arnold, shares her story of diagnosis and survivorship.
Clinical Trial Seeks to Unravel Mystery of Chemobrain in Breast Cancer
BY CHRISTINA IZZO
A new study hopes to gain some clarity on what causes some breast cancer patients to feel “foggy” when receiving chemotherapy.
Cancer Survivorship Experts and Apple Unveil Mobile App to Accelerate Research
BY ELIZABETH WHITTINGTON
Cancer research groups, Apple and breast cancer organizations partner to accelerate survivorship research.
Related Videos
Health Advocate Amy Byer Shainman Discusses Risk Management of Hereditary Cancers
When it comes to managing your risk of cancer, especially when dealing with a familial cancer risk, "what is right for one person, may not be right for another," says Amy Byer Shainman.
Research Updates on HER2-Positive Breast Cancer from the 2015 Miami Breast Cancer Conference
Debu Tripathy, editor-in-chief of CURE magazine, discusses updates from the Miami Breast Cancer Conference, including the changing landscape of HER2-positive breast cancer.
Medical Updates from the 32nd Annual Miami Breast Cancer Conference
The evolution of the treatment for hormone receptor-positive breast cancer was a hot topic for this year's Miami Breast Cancer Conference. Debu Tripathy, CURE's editor-in-chief and breast oncologist, reports from the meeting.
Joan Lunden Discusses the Physical and Emotional Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment
Journalist Joan Lunden shares her experience with breast cancer, side effects and working through treatment.
Journalist Joan Lunden Discusses Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment
Roy Firestone interviews longtime journalist, author and television host Joan Lunden on her recent breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Recent Publications
  • photo
    photo
    photo
    photo
    photo
  • photo
    photo
    photo
    photo
    photo
ADVERTISEMENT
$auto_registration$