Breast surgery of­ten leaves them numb

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - DR MIRIAM STOPPARD -

There was a time in the dim and dis­tant past when the first mas­tec­tomies were hailed as a rad­i­cal ad­vance in cancer treat­ment. Well, they were and they weren’t. Sur­geons felt that the more of the breast they re­moved, the surer would be the cure. But women were mu­ti­lated. I as­sisted at many a mas­tec­tomy and cringed at the bru­tal­ity and dis­fig­ure­ment that re­sulted. Then came the os­ten­si­bly hu­mane so­lu­tion to a one-sided flat chest – breast re­con­struc­tion. And, in­deed, reconstructed breasts, es­pe­cially if fash­ioned from the woman’s own belly fat, have a nat­u­ral look and feel. Two friends of mine claim they’re even bet­ter than the breasts they had be­fore. Well, they are and they aren’t. The prob­lem is the word “feel”. When a sur­geon says your breasts will feel nat­u­ral, they mean how well it will feel to some­one else, not to you. The em­pha­sis has been on how a woman looks, not how a woman feels. The kind of re­con­struc­tion Angelina Jolie had spares the nip­ple which, with nerve and blood sup­ply, is stitched into the re­fash­ioned breast. So far so good, ex­cept that the nip­ple and breast may be com­pletely numb. This loss of sen­sa­tion can be catas­trophic for women. For what­ever rea­sons, sur­geons are of­ten eco­nom­i­cal with the truth, rarely say­ing you won’t have sex­ual arousal in your breasts any­more. Women feel an­gry, up­set and be­trayed. Worse, the lack of sen­sa­tion is po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous. Women who’ve had mas­tec­tomies and re­con­struc­tion surgery have sus­tained se­vere burns on their breasts from heat­ing pads, hair dry­ers, curl­ing irons, sun­bathing and overly hot show­ers be­cause the area is numb. Nerve dam­age dur­ing mas­tec­tomies can also cre­ate post-mas­tec­tomy pain syn­drome. Some women ex­pe­ri­ence tin­gling sen­sa­tions and oth­ers have de­bil­i­tat­ing pain. Pa­tients say doc­tors un­der­play this, even though it’s fairly com­mon, af­fect­ing any­where from 25% to 60% of mas­tec­tomy pa­tients, ac­cord­ing to pub­lished stud­ies. Dr Frank J Del­lacroce, a plas­tic sur­geon from New Or­leans, says restor­ing sen­sa­tion is “one of those things that’s re­garded as the holy grail of breast re­con­struc­tion”. He added: “But no one has shown in any sci­en­tific ar­ti­cle to date that we’re able to re­turn sen­sa­tion in any re­li­able way.” Dr Chris­tine Laronga, a breast on­col­o­gist at the Mof­fitt Cancer Cen­ter in Tampa, Florida, said she tries to be hon­est with pa­tients that feel­ing won’t be re­stored af­ter re­con­struc­tion, telling them, “It may look like a breast, but it won’t feel like a breast.” While doc­tors agree on the need for a mas­tec­tomy op­er­a­tion that spares nerves, the main goal of surgery, of course, is to make sure that the cancer is gone.

Restor­ing the sen­sa­tion is the holy grail

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