Dr. Tom Grace has been performing plastic surgery in Baltimore since 1990, but his voice still becomes animated when discussing recent medical advances. Most recently, the St. Agnes Hospital surgeon’s excitement was ignited by an evolving technique that uses human skin to aid the process of breast reconstruction for breast cancer survivors.

Contrary to belief, the road to recovery doesn’t end for breast cancer patients once their treatments are finished. For many convalescents, specifically those that undergo mastectomies, the next phase to full recovery—both mentally and physically—is breast reconstruction. Mastectomy typically destroys everything inside the breast including the nipple and areola and a fair amount of skin in some cases, leaving the breast flat after treatment. Plastic surgeons then try to rebuild the breast to its regular appearance utilizing breast implants and human tissue. Applying human tissue for surgery is a technique that’s been used by surgeons for years via cadaver skin, but recent developments have allowed for the use of donated skin, lending to improved results while minimizing the risk of complications.

“It’s a technique we’ve been using a lot since the ’70s or the ’80s. About five years ago somebody figured out if we take human beings’ skin or a product of the skin—now it’s been extended that some companies use pig material—we can sew it to the muscle to cover the implant,” Grace said. “There’s less complications, a better looking breast reconstruction and the like. It’s a technique that’s been around for a long time this newer material has really made the technique a lot better.”

While most people would chafe at the idea of donating their own skin, cosmetic surgeries such as liposuction, abdominoplasties and others have allowed patients to willfully provide excess and unwanted skin without hesitation. Because the top layers of provided skin aren’t used by surgeons in the breast reconstruction procedure, cross matching different races of skin is acceptable.

“The biological material from the skin that we use you can use anybody’s on anybody, it’s not rejected,” Grace said.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the reconstructive process for patients is learning their alternatives. A recent study by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reveals that seven of every 10 women facing breast cancer do not know their reconstructive options. Although several resources and outlets are readily available, study results suggest women are not informed properly about breast reconstruction options post-mastectomy.

Despite the lengthy history of breast reconstruction procedures, awareness of advancement in cancer recovery is something that still eludes most patients. But its knowledge physicians worldwide are trying diligently to promote.

“What’s exciting about being a physician is that you’re always looking for new and better things,” Grace added. “So when we find things that are newer and better it’s even more exciting to people like me.”

For more information on breast reconstruction and other related matters, visit breastreconstructionmatters.com


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO