BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Empty, incomplete, broken. It's how some women describe the feeling of losing their breasts to cancer. For those who chose it, reconstruction has come a long way, and one of the most advanced procedures is available in Baton Rouge.
A small group of women listened intently during a recent seminar at Renaissance Hotel. Among them was Mary Barnhizer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 1985.
"I was fine for a lot of years, and all of a sudden I went back for a mammogram this past November, and they called me back in, saying, 'We found something, let's go look again,'" Barnhizer recalled.
After undergoing a mastectomy in December, she's now focused on reconstruction.
Dr. Ali Sadeghi is a New Orleans-based plastic surgeon with the Center for Aesthetics & Plastic Surgery. In Baton Rouge, he works alongside breast surgeon Dr. Everett Bonner with the Baton Rouge Clinic. The pair hosted the seminar to explain the type of reconstructive surgery known as the "perforator flap." A flap is any tissue that has its own blood supply.
"About 80 percent of breast reconstruction that's done in the country is done by using implants," Sadeghi explained. "And about 20 percent is done by using the patient's own tissue, and of that about 5% is what we call perforator flaps, in which the tissue is being used but no muscle is being sacrificed."
That is the key difference. Sadeghi is able to remove a section of tissue from the abdomen and transplant it into the breast without damaging any muscle. Blood vessels are delicately reconnected inside the breast pocket to provide blood circulation to the new breast. Similar flap techniques often damage muscle, leading to weakness, hernias and other problems.
"We have much better control of the abdominal donor site, less complications, better recovery, quicker recovery, and patients are able to get back to any daily activities much quicker," Sadeghi said.
Sadeghi invited 9News to Champion Medical Center on Howell Boulevard for a first-hand look at the second part of the procedure. The patient that day was a woman in her forties who underwent a double mastectomy and opted to have both breasts reconstructed. The tissue from her abdomen was transplanted in a previous surgery, and Sadeghi was then tasked with shaping the breasts using the patient's own fat.
Using the fat is an added benefit to perforator flap reconstruction. Once the donor site in the abdomen is closed, the result is a 'tummy tuck' of sorts, making the belly flatter and tighter. Sadeghi also uses liposuction in the stomach and thighs to collect fat that will help shape the new breasts. In this case he collected seven vials of fat, which was then distributed evenly throughout both breasts. The result is a natural, and often more symmetrical outcome.
"They interpret that as their own tissue, as their own breast. It feels like it, it looks like it, the temperature of the breasts are just like the old breasts. With implants we fall short in delivering that," Sadeghi said.
While the benefits may seem obvious, Sadeghi explained that many women simply do not know their options at the time of diagnosis or mastectomy.
"If you don't offer reconstruction immediately at the time of their mastectomies, 70 to 80 percent of these patients never come back looking for reconstruction, because by that time, they're done with surgery, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation," he said.
Barnhizer is back as a survivor, ready to finally finish healing.
"I'm definitely having it done this time. I want to be whole again," she said.