No flaps were lost; complications were limited to minor wound healing complications, which occurred in 3 patients and did not require return to the operating room, and 1 hospital readmission for cellulitis.
Thirteen patients underwent a second-stage breast reconstruction revision, which included nipple reconstruction, fat grafting, and modifications of the skin envelope, as well as modification of the donor sites. A mean period of 15 weeks (range, 12–28 weeks) elapsed between the original delayed breast reconstruction and the second-stage reconstruction revision.
Group 1 Patients: Adequate Breast Skin Surface Area
Patients who have completed tissue expansion or completed implant-based reconstruction either with or without radiation therapy but are dissatisfied with the quality of their breast reconstruction represent a common scenario.1 Frequently, these patients complain about an unnatural appearance or feel of their breasts and breast pain, which is secondary to capsular contracture, or deformity related to pectoralis muscle animation or implant malposition.
In these patients, there is sufficient skin surface to perform delayed autologous reconstruction without the need for resurfacing the breast with additional skin from the flap. Existing mastectomy scars are opened to recreate the mastectomy defect. The filled tissue expander or breast implant and its capsule are removed, and the pectoralis muscle is replaced to its native position. The ideal breast footprint is recreated by modifying the mastectomy pocket with tissue undermining or suturing. A tissue flap is placed and secured into the mastectomy pocket as in immediate breast reconstruction. The ideal nipple location is identified on the breast surface, and a small slightly elliptical skin paddle is externalized in this location for monitoring (Fig. 1B right breast). The skin paddle is later used to complete a nipple reconstruction. In cases where the native nipple was preserved during the mastectomy, the skin paddle is externalized as a small ellipse along the access incision (Fig. 1B left breast) and removed in the subsequent stage.
Group 2 Patients: Amenable to Breast Skin Expansion
Patients who failed implant-based reconstruction, or never underwent breast reconstruction, and were never treated with radiation therapy may be candidates for expansion of their skin envelope before undergoing definitive reconstruction with autologous tissue (Fig. 2).6 When a tissue expander is already present in a subpectoral plane, then the skin envelope is simply expanded. If the patient does not have a tissue expander in place, but the skin envelope is amenable to expansion, then the tissue expander is placed in a subcutaneous plane. This scenario requires a commitment from the patient to undergo an additional surgical step of placing a tissue expander and a time delay for expansion. This additional surgical step obviates the need for a large skin paddle, which limits the scars to the original mastectomy scar, and significantly improves the aesthetic result of the final reconstruction. As in group 1 patients, the flap skin paddle is externalized for monitoring in an ideal nipple position or along one of the mastectomy incisions.
Group 3 Patients: Require Breast Skin Resurfacing
Patients who failed implant-based reconstruction, or never underwent breast reconstruction, and were treated with radiation therapy or cannot undergo expansion represent the greatest challenge to achieving an excellent aesthetic result. In all instances, there is a paucity of not only breast volume but also breast surface area, which requires the transfer of a significant amount of flap skin. Skin paddle design is paramount to optimizing aesthetic results. Optimal results are obtained when the flap skin replaces the entire skin of the lower breast resulting in a 2 tone breast mound (superior mastectomy skin and flap skin). The alternative is to use a smaller elliptical skin paddle placed between the upper and lower mastectomy flaps. Although this approach may restore the breast skin surface area, it results in a less attractive 3 tone breast mound (inferior mastectomy skin, flap skin, and superior mastectomy skin; Fig. 4).
It is the author’s preference to resurface the lower pole of the breast with flap skin (Fig. 3D). The ideal breast footprint is marked preoperatively (Fig. 3B); the upper mastectomy flap is elevated to recreate the mastectomy defect and provide access to the internal mammary recipient vessels. The lower mastectomy flap is deepithelialized, not discarded, so that the additional volume of the lower mastectomy flap remains to simulate the appearance of natural ptosis and maximize volume (Fig. 3E, F). This is especially useful in bilateral reconstructions where options to maximize volume are limited. Additionally, in the event of a flap failure, the preservation of this tissue may facilitate wound management. Whether burying a mastectomy skin flap under a breast reconstruction will affect the ability to detect future breast cancer recurrences remains to be seen.7,8 Every patient is aware of this limitation as part of their informed consent.
Furthermore, group 3 patients require a greater volume of fat graft at the time of revision surgery compared with the 2 other patient groups. This difference achieved statistical significance when compared with group 1 patients.
Bilateral Breast Reconstruction
Cases of bilateral breast reconstruction, in which one of the breasts is reconstructed in a delayed fashion and the other breast is reconstructed immediately after a mastectomy, represent the most challenging and interesting reconstructions in this series. Achieving breast symmetry in these cases requires consideration. Unlike a bilateral breast reconstruction performed in the immediate setting or a bilateral delayed breast reconstruction where the abdominal tissue can be divided in the midline to achieve a symmetric result, delayed breast reconstruction performed at the same time as an immediate breast reconstruction requires asymmetric tissue distribution. In this series, the delayed flap was on average larger by 60 g and required a mean of 175 cc of fat graft to achieve breast symmetry. This translates to an additional 200–300 cc of tissue on the delayed side to achieve symmetry. Future flap designs will anticipate these volume requirements to decrease reliance on large volume fat grafting, which may be less reliable long term because of fat graft resorption. In a typical DIEP flap, which may be 15 cm tall and 3 cm thick, the line of division between the left and right flap needs to be shifted 2–3 cm to account for the different volume requirements between breasts. Options for asymmetric tissue distribution may be limited when both flaps are based on medial row perforators. In those cases, symmetry will be achieved during the secondary procedure with excision, liposuction, or fat grafting.
It is the author’s preference to monitor the flap with a skin paddle. In group 3 patients, this is simple to accomplish because of the large skin surface area required to complete the reconstruction. In cases where the native breast skin envelope is preserved, a small skin paddle is designed to be later incorporated into a nipple areola reconstruction. In cases where no Doppler signal is captured over the externalized portion of the flap, an implantable Doppler is used to monitor the arterial portion of the flap, and the flap skin paddle color is monitored to assess the venous outflow. This is preferred to leaving an excessively large or poorly positioned skin paddle to capture a skin perforator signal. In patients with an adequate breast skin surface area, the skin paddle should fall entirely within the area of the tattooed areola at the completion of the reconstruction (Fig. 5C).
Nipple Reconstruction and Additional Procedures
A second-stage breast reconstruction revision operation is recommended to all patients to be performed at the time of the nipple reconstruction to optimize aesthetic outcomes. Nipple reconstruction is performed by utilizing CV flaps. Even when the original DIEP flap skin paddle is designed to be slightly elliptical to account for the skin that will be used for the nipple reconstruction, some distortion of the skin paddle perimeter results in less than a perfectly round areola (Fig. 5B). As long as the final skin paddle is smaller than the eventual areola, this deformity can be concealed within the tattoo (Fig. 5C). In cases of a large skin paddle, as in group 3 patients, it is the author’s preference to incise a 38–42 mm areola perimeter at the time of the nipple reconstruction. This results in an immediate illusion of the entire nipple areola complex and creates a guide for future tattooing (Fig. 3D). The eventual tattoo overlaps the scars from this step resulting in a scarless appearance of the reconstructed nipple areola (Fig. 5C).
Fat grafting is commonly utilized at the time of the secondary procedure. Fat graft is used to disguise surface contour irregularities, which commonly occur along the perimeter of the flap. In the case of a significant breast asymmetry, fat graft is placed diffusely into the breast flap to increase its volume. Typically 50–100 cc of fat is used to camouflage irregularities and 200 cc or more to augment the volume of a breast to correct an asymmetry. The abdominal donor site frequently benefits by obtaining the fat graft from areas of excessive fullness.
It is currently the author’s practice to externalize a skin paddle for monitoring. Even in cases where no arterial signal is present over the skin paddle, it provides valuable information about the venous drainage of the flap. Some surgeons prefer to monitor breast flaps with an implantable Doppler only, which obviates the need for a skin island and may further optimize the aesthetics of the eventual nipple reconstruction.
The author utilizes stacked DIEP flaps for immediate unilateral or stacked DIEP/PAP flaps for immediate bilateral reconstructions in slender patients. None of the patients included in this study underwent a stacked flap procedure, but a stacked DIEP flap can restore a significant amount of breast surface area and would be ideal for unilateral delayed breast reconstruction in a slender patient with a large contralateral breast.
Predicting volume discrepancies between 2 breasts can be challenging. The use of 3D imaging and volume subtraction can help guide eccentric flap volume distribution and fat grafting decisions.9
Aesthetic outcomes of delayed breast reconstruction can be optimized with several key surgical maneuvers including:
- Restoration of breast skin envelope with tissue expansion when possible.
- Optimal positioning of a small skin paddle to be later incorporated entirely into a nipple areola reconstruction when adequate breast skin surface area is present.
- Limiting the reconstructed breast mound to 2 skin tones when a large area skin resurfacing is required.
- Increasing breast volume by deepithelializing, not discarding, the inferior mastectomy flap skin.
- Eccentric division of abdominal flaps when an immediate and delayed bilateral breast reconstruction are performed simultaneously.
- Performing second-stage breast reconstruction revisions and fat grafting.
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Copyright © 2017 The Authors. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. on behalf of The American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
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