When it comes to plastic surgery, we often think about breast implants and other cosmetic treatments. But did you know plastic surgery plays an integral role in a patient’s cancer treatment and recovery as well?
While cosmetic surgery is performed to reshape normal parts of the body to improve appearance and self-image, reconstructive surgery is performed on abnormal or damaged parts of the body.
That’s because cancer treatments can affect every part of your body, causing damage to normal tissues in your skin, muscles, nerves and bones. In these situations, a plastic surgeon applies techniques of reconstructive surgery to reverse these unwanted side effects and have a tremendous impact on patients’ overall health and wellbeing.
“Cancer surgery and radiation treatments can eradicate the cancer, but they also often affect the parts of the body lying next to the tumor, which can sometimes change your appearance,” said Michael Miller, MD, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Arizona. “In addition to tissue loss, they can also cause nerve damage and pain, which can limit function and mobility. Reconstructive surgeons can rearrange and transfer normal tissues into the affected area to help restore normal function and appearance.”
Benefits of reconstructive surgery in cancer treatment and recovery
Reconstructive surgeons are well-suited to perform many cancer-related procedures—from your head to your toes, including breast reconstruction and facial reconstruction, skin, tendon and bone grafting, scar revisions, and even treating and restoring areas damaged from radiation and chemotherapy.
But if you’re recently diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to have a plastic surgeon who is fully integrated on your cancer treatment team.
“Reconstructive surgery and choosing the best possible technique are best considered in the first stages of treatment planning and shouldn’t be an afterthought,” Dr. Miller said. “Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are complementary forms of treatment and various reconstructive surgery options can affect the sequence, timing and duration of each. Some tumors aren’t even treatable unless reconstructive surgery is included in the plan.”
Oftentimes reconstruction isn’t a one-and-done surgery and may involve multiple procedures performed in stages—beginning at the start of treatment or delayed until after—to ensure optimal results.
When reconstruction isn’t offered
If plastic surgeons are an important member of the multidisciplinary cancer team, why is reconstructive surgery not always offered?
It’s not considered a priority: Some may consider a deformity as a result of cancer treatment as a small price to pay for surviving cancer. Or you may be concerned you’ll be viewed as ungrateful or “vain” if you’re concerned about a disability or unsightly deformity after a successful cancer treatment.
“I like to reassure patients that the goal is to return them as much as possible to normal after treatment,” Dr. Miller said. “Having them look and feel as much as possible as they did before cancer is perfectly appropriate and not a matter of vanity.”
There’s a lack of familiarity: You and your doctor may be unaware of the reconstructive surgical methods that may be available to you.
“Ideally, all contemporary reconstructive options should be available from the reconstructive team treating you,” Dr. Miller said. “The possibility of performing and offering all options ensure the most appropriate option for you.”
There isn’t a specialist: Your treatment team may not include surgeons who have expertise in reconstructive surgery for cancer.
There are many potential cancer treatment side effects like physical deformities, the inability to chew, speak or swallow, unsightly scars, loss of hand or leg function that can be treated using reconstructive surgery. If any of these are the case for you or you’re unsure of your surgical options, don’t be afraid to bring up questions and concerns with your cancer team and to seek a second opinion, if desired, to ensure you are getting the very best treatment options and care. As with all other types of surgeries, careful discussions between you and your doctor and plastic surgeons are encouraged so that the decisions regarding cancer surgery and reconstructive surgery can be made.
To learn more about cancer reconstructive surgery and other treatment options available at Banner MD Anderson, visit bannerhealth.com.