If you and your care team decide that having a mastectomy is part of your treatment plan, you will then have yet another decision to make–whether you’re going to do reconstruction, and if so, what type. The most common type uses implants, which comes with its own set of considerations, such as muscle placement.
You may also hear the interchangeable terms autologous breast reconstruction, tissue flap, or tissue-based reconstruction. This is a type of reconstruction that uses the body’s own tissue, rather than an implant, to rebuild the shape of the breast.
While implants are still more common, many women are considering DIEP flap reconstruction because it offers longer-lasting and more natural looking and feeling results. It is to be noted, however, that sometimes tissue flap procedures are used with a breast implant if more volume is needed.
This is a big decision. Here, we break down the advantages, disadvantages, and considerations when choosing this type of procedure.
What is a DIEP flap?
The most common kind of tissue flap reconstruction is the DIEP flap. Blood vessels called deep inferior epigastric perforators (DIEP), along with the skin and fat connected with them, are removed from the abdominal donor site and used for reconstruction, while the muscle is left in place.
Usually tissue is taken from the abdomen, but depending on a patient’s body shape, surgery/health history, and lifestyle, it can also be taken from other parts of the body, such as inner or outer thighs, back, buttocks, or even a combination of sites, called “stacked flaps.”
These are also known as “free” flaps, as opposed to “pedicle flaps,” which involve moving tissue from the donor site to breast or chest wall while still attached to the original blood supply.
Is DIEP Flap Better Than Implants?
There is no universal right answer to this question. While a DIEP flap might be better than an implant for some women, the converse might be true for others. This is because we all come to our breast cancer journeys with different body types, health history, and priorities.
At Stage, we are not here to judge what type of reconstruction is better; we’re here to empower with info! As such, below we have listed advantages and disadvantages of the Diep flap to take into account so you can talk to your surgeon and discuss which option might be best for you.
Surgery and Recovery Time
Tissue flap breast reconstruction surgery can take anywhere from 4-12 hours total, depending on the surgeon, and can be performed either immediately following a mastectomy or delayed.
During the procedure, a flap of tissue is removed from the selected donor site and moved up to recreate the breast. If the free flap technique is being used, surgeons will utilize microsurgery to remove blood vessels from the donor site and reestablish blood flow to the reconstructed breast.
While implant reconstruction is generally done as an outpatient procedure or requires only a minimal hospital stay, tissue flap reconstruction usually requires a hospital stay of two to three nights; this is to monitor the tissue flap, manage pain, and ensure mobility prior to discharge.
Patients can expect to have drains and activity restrictions based on the surgery and donor sites, where they might also experience some pain. Generally, this recovery takes about four to six weeks.
Advantages of DIEP Flap Reconstruction
Because tissue flaps don’t usually take muscle from the donor site, and use tissue from a person’s own body, there are many advantages.
- Low risk of losing muscle strength
- Cosmetically, the donor site looks better than if the muscle had been removed
- Reconstructed breasts look, feel and act more like natural breast tissue than implants do, including aging naturally and adjusting to weight gain and loss
- They don’t need to be replaced like implants do after 10-15 years (requiring another surgery)
- Possibility of regaining breast sensation (read more on re-nervation procedures here)
- Some donor sites may become slimmer, flatter, or tighter since tissue is being removed
Disadvantages of Tissue Flap Reconstruction
In general, flaps require more surgery and a longer recovery time than breast implant procedures.
- Flap operations leave two surgical sites and scars–one where the tissue was taken from (the donor site) and one on the reconstructed breast
- Some women can have donor site complications such as abdominal bulging, muscle damage or weakness, wound healing complications, seroma formation (fluid accumulation), and distortions such as skin dimpling
- Recovery time could be longer because multiple parts of the body have to heal: the breast/chest area and the donor site
- Risk of flap failure. Due to poor blood flow either to the tissue or away from the tissue in the artery or the vein, this requires another surgery to repair the vessels quickly. Flap failure could also be due to a clot or kink in the vessels and can result in the flap being lost completely.
- May require multiple phases of surgeries at least a few months apart, requiring even more recovery time and time off
Some factors may preclude a person from being a candidate for tissue flap reconstruction including:
- Medical issues in which a longer surgery isn’t safe, or history of abdominal surgeries including previous abdominal liposuction (having a history of c-section, however, will not preclude you)
- History of clotting disorders
- Active smoking
- Not having enough tissue for a flap
- Being significantly overweight
As with all decisions during your breast cancer journey, consult your care team, and as we advocate here at Stage, learn as much as possible so that you can be armed with info and questions when you speak to your doctor.
One final word of advice: if you do opt for tissue flap reconstruction, it’s important that the plastic surgeon who performs it works closely with your breast surgeon, and is an experienced microsurgeon.