The decision of whether or not to undergo breast reconstruction is a highly personal one. Breast reconstruction surgery can be an empowering option for breast cancer patients hoping to restore both the look and feel of their breasts following a unilateral or bilateral mastectomy. With a variety of advanced surgical techniques available and options for immediate or delayed reconstruction procedures, nearly all breast cancer patients are candidates for some form of breast reconstruction. However, despite the options and advancements available today, breast reconstruction surgery can be an underutilized solution for many whose lives have been touched by breast cancer— especially in women over the age of 55.
While the choice to undergo breast reconstruction surgery is ultimately yours, age alone should not discourage you from exploring your options. Among some, there is a misguided belief that surgery in older individuals is inherently risky. More so, older women may feel as though they are “too old” to want to feel sexy and beautiful. Whether you’ve never been given the option for reconstruction because of your age or you have your own doubts or concerns about the procedure, board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Christine Fisher knows that when it comes to your breast reconstruction candidacy, age really is just a number.
Age and Breast Cancer Prevalence
Aging is an unavoidable part of life, and unfortunately, getting older is a well-established risk factor for developing breast cancer. The longer you live, the more opportunities there are for genetic changes or mutations in your body’s cells. When these abnormalities occur, cancer cells can develop. Therefore, the older a woman is, the more likely she is to get breast cancer.
Fewer than five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. are younger than the age of 40, but those rates begin to increase substantially after the age of 40 and are highest in women who are over the age of 70. According to the American Cancer Society, roughly one out of eight invasive breast cancers develop in women younger than 45 years of age, and about two of three invasive breast cancers are found in women 55 years old and older. More than 40 percent of new breast cancer diagnoses are in women older than 60, and the median age of breast cancer diagnosis for women in the U.S. is 62 — though this can vary by ethnicity.
Despite the high prevalence of breast cancer in women over 55, older women are less likely to undergo breast reconstruction surgery than younger women diagnosed with the disease. At this time, breast reconstruction is undertaken by fewer than 10 percent of patients undergoing a mastectomy. This may be due to a lack of education; it is estimated that less than 23 percent of women know the full range of breast reconstruction options available to them. But it may also be due to a preconceived notion by patients or surgeons that breast reconstruction simply is unsafe or unnecessary in older women. At Christine Fisher, M.D., we know that neither of these are true.
What Does the Research Say?
Breast reconstruction surgery has well-known and far-reaching benefits for the women who undergo the procedure, such as a restored sense of femininity, sexuality and self-esteem. The reasons for not seeking reconstruction can be related to several factors. A survey of patients diagnosed with breast cancer reported the desire to avoid additional surgery was the most common reason given for not pursuing reconstruction; however, insurance coverage, a lack of education regarding reconstruction options and individual factors such as the patient’s age were also found to play essential roles.
According to a study published in the Journal of American College Surgeons in October of 2016, research has indicated that older women enjoy the same benefits from breast reconstruction following mastectomy for breast cancer as younger women, and typically without a significant increase in the risk for complications. While the benefits of breast reconstruction surgery should always be weighed against the risks when deciding if the surgery is right for you, the study has shown that age alone should not disqualify you from undergoing a reconstructive procedure.
The study followed patients before their breast reconstruction procedure and tracked their progress for two years afterward. The patients were categorized into three separate age groups for the study: younger patients (less than 45 years of age), middle-aged patients (between 45 and 60 years of age) and older patients (over the age of 60). While complication rates varied by the type of reconstructive procedure, such as whether the surgery utilized implants or the patient’s own tissue, the overall results did not indicate a significant increase in risk for the older age groups.
Among the women who received breast implants for their reconstruction, the complication rate was 22 percent in the younger patients, 27 percent in middle-aged patients, and 29 percent in older patients. The rate for complications in women who had an autologous tissue transfer was 33 percent in younger patients, 29 percent in middle-aged patients, and 31 percent in older patients. As these findings suggest, age alone does not significantly affect risk for complications in breast reconstruction, and breast reconstruction provides the same benefits in terms of quality of life and body image in older patients as it does for younger patients.
What Does This Mean for Me?
It’s never too late in life to consider breast reconstruction surgery, and all women, regardless of their age, should know the options available to them. If you are in good overall health and feel that breast reconstruction can help you to regain a sense of normalcy, call us to schedule your one-on-one consultation with Dr. Christine Fisher. Dr. Fisher has extensive experience working with breast cancer survivors of all ages to provide natural and beautiful reconstructive outcomes. While breast reconstruction surgery isn’t for everyone, many women find it to be an essential piece of their healing journey. Contact the office of Christine Fisher, M.D. today at 512-815-0123 to discover your possibilities.
Christine Fisher MD