CHICAGO This week, one of the world's most glamorous women announced she had an operation that once was terribly disfiguring removal of both breasts. But new approaches are dramatically changing breast surgeries, whether to treat cancer or to prevent it as Angelina Jolie just chose to do. As Jolie said, "the results can be beautiful."
Jolie revealed on Tuesday that she had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with implants because she carries a gene mutation that puts her at high risk of developing breast cancer.
For women who already have the disease, the choice used to be whether to have the lump or the whole breast removed. Now there are more options that allow faster treatment, smaller scars, fewer long-term side effects and better cosmetic results. It has led to a new specialty "oncoplastic" surgery combining oncology, which focuses on cancer treatment, and plastic surgery to restore appearance.
"Cosmetics is very important" and can help a woman recover psychologically as well as physically, said Dr. Deanna Attai, a Burbank, Calif., surgeon who is on the board of directors of the American Society of Breast Surgeons. Its annual meeting in Chicago earlier this month featured many of these new approaches.
Doctors used to think it wasn't good to start reconstruction until cancer treatment had ended surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. Women would have a mastectomy, which usually involves taking the skin and the nipple along with all the breast tissue, followed by operations months later to rebuild the breast.
Reconstruction can use tissue from the back or belly, or an implant. The first operation often is to place a tissue expander, a balloon-like device that's gradually inflated to stretch the remaining skin and make room for the implant. A few months later, a second surgery is done to remove the expander and place the implant. Once that heals, a third operation is done to make a new nipple, followed by tattooing to make an areola, the darkened ring around it.
The new trend is immediate reconstruction, with the first steps started at the time of the mastectomy, either to place a tissue expander or an implant. In some cases, the whole thing can be done in one operation.
Nationally, about 25 to 30 percent of women get immediate reconstruction. At the Mayo Clinic, about half do, and at Georgetown, it's about 80 percent.
Jolie wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that she had tissue expanders and then implants placed nine weeks later. "There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful," she wrote.
SPARING SKIN, NIPPLES
Doctors usually take the skin when they do a mastectomy to make sure they leave no cancer behind. But in the last decade they increasingly have left the skin in certain women with favorable tumor characteristics and women having preventive mastectomies, such as Jolie.
"We have learned over time that you can save skin" in many patients, said Dr. Shawna Willey of Georgetown's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Every single study has shown that it's safe."
Now they're going the next step: preserving the nipple, which is even more at risk of being involved in cancer than the skin is. Only about 5 percent of women get this now, but eligibility could be expanded if it proves safe. The breast surgery society has a registry on nipple-sparing mastectomies that will track such women for 10 years.
"You really have to pick patients carefully," because no one wants to compromise cancer control for cosmetic reasons, said Dr. Deanna Attai, a Burbank, Calif., surgeon who is on the board of directors of the American Society of Breast Surgeons.
"The preliminary data are that nipple-sparing is quite good," but studies haven't been long enough to know for sure, Willey said. "It makes a huge difference in the cosmetic outcome. That makes the woman's breast recognizable to her."
It helped persuade Rose Ragona, a 51-year-old operations supervisor at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. She had both breasts removed on April 19 with the most modern approach: Immediate reconstruction, with preservation of her skin and nipples.
"To wake up and just see your breasts there helped me immensely," she said.
Attai, the California breast surgeon, is one of the researchers in a national study testing cryoablation. The technique uses a probe cooled with liquid nitrogen that turns tumors into ice balls of dead tissue that's gradually absorbed by the body. This has been done since 2004 for benign breast tumors and the clinical trial is aimed at seeing if it's safe for cancer treatment.
"The technology is amazing. This is done in the office under local anesthesia, a little skin puncture," Attai said.
In the study, women still have surgery at some point after the freezing treatment to make sure all the cancer is destroyed. If it proves safe and effective, it could eliminate surgery for certain cancer patients.
"I'd love to see the day when we can offer women with small breast tumors a completely non-operative approach, and I do think that's coming soon," Attai said.