Rebuilding after breast cancer

March 7, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
The scars from a mastectomy are not only physical: They take an emotional toll on women. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons says 70 percent of breast cancer patients who are eligible for reconstruction aren't informed of their options.

Now, donated human tissue is allowing many survivors to move on physically and mentally.

The sweet sounds of the violin helped Donna Bramante Indelicato get through one of the roughest times of her life. A recurrence of breast cancer forced her to have a double mastectomy.

"It was devastating," Indelicato told Ivanhoe. "I felt like a primal part of who I am as a woman had been removed." She wanted reconstructive surgery. Doctors ruled it out because she lacked the tissue needed to hold an implant in place.

"It just reminded me over and over again of my cancer," Indelicato said.

After more than four years she found another option -- surgeons used a material made up of donated human skin. They sewed it to surrounding muscle and the chest wall to hold the implant in place.

"Actually create a pocket around the implant, so we can keep that implant on the woman's chest where it belongs," Amy S. Colwell, M.D., a plastic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told Ivanhoe.

The tissue matrix acts as a frame for new tissue to grow on and around.

"Your body incorporates it," Dr. Colwell explained. "You have blood vessels in your dermis, in your skin, that if there's a collagen matrix there, it will invade it and it will become part of your body."

Study results show this technique can be safely used in certain patients immediately after a mastectomy, which could eliminate the need for a second surgery.

"It brings tears to my eyes, but my daughter said, 'Mom, you look like all the rest of the moms now," Indelicato said. Now, she can move forward with confidence.

There is some risk the implanted material will be rejected by the body.