What You Should Know About Numbness After Mastectomy
Surgery for breast cancer can save your life. But if you’re like many women, you may not expect to be left with numbness. Find out how research may one day change that picture.
Surgery for breast cancer can save your life. But if you’re like many women, you may not expect to be left with numbness.
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Treatments to reverse breast numbness after mastectomy are not yet available. So surgeons are searching for ways to help women retain breast and nipple sensation.
“We regard this as one of the next frontiers in trying to improve our outcomes with mastectomy and breast reconstruction,” says plastic surgeon Graham Schwarz, MD.
Surgeons are comparing breast reconstruction options to see which ones are associated with a greater return of sensation.
In addition, “our team of researchers is exploring reconstructive procedures that may restore sensation lost as a result of mastectomy surgery,” says Dr. Schwarz. The work is in its early stages, however.
When you remove breast tissue during mastectomy, it causes nerve damage that takes away feeling in the chest or breasts, he explains.
It’s possible to recover some — but not all — feeling in the months or years to come. This is true, whether or not you choose reconstructive surgery.
But your breasts won’t ever feel exactly the way they felt before your surgery.
“The lack of sensation impacts women’s quality of life,” notes Dr. Schwarz. “It may affect emotional well-being and intimacy. Women can also experience physical pain and discomfort from the cut nerves.”
For these reasons, surgeons are searching for ways to address the problem.
Research is still in its early phases. But plastic surgeons specializing in microsurgery believe they will be able to develop options to help women regain some feeling in their breasts.
The most promising option involves promoting nerve regeneration in the skin of the breast, Dr. Schwarz says. This is most likely to work if the patient’s own tissue is used to reconstruct the breasts. Evidence suggests that feeling can return to a greater degree with natural tissue rather than with implants.
Yet much work lies ahead. Some of the challenges include:
Dr. Schwarz sees promise in nerve-grafting techniques using specialized connector tubes and nerve segments to link the cut breast nerves to sensory nerves in tissue flaps from the abdomen.
If you’re facing mastectomy for breast cancer, asking your physician two questions will help you know what to expect, he says:
He notes that the nipple and areola, which surgeons can often spare to give reconstructed breasts a more natural appearance, recapture the least feeling because they’re farthest from the chest wall.
“Yet, no matter what, it’s important to remember that the result is different for different women,” says Dr. Schwarz.
And it’s helpful to know that doctors will continue to search for ways to improve life after mastectomy.