In regional first, Cambridge doctor performs breast surgery to bring sensation back to mastectomy patient

Patients who have a mastectomy can have reconstructive surgery that brings sensation back to the breast. The first ever procedure was performed December 8 at Cambridge Memorial Hospital.
" For patients who don't have a sensation ... it feels like something that is not their own," said Dr. Sawa. "They don't have feeling in it when they touch it." (Submitted by Cambridge Memorial Hospital)

A surgery that restores sensation to a person's breast after undergoing a mastectomy has been completed at Cambridge Memorial Hospital in a first for Waterloo Region.

Dr. Kathryn Sawa says plastic surgeons are good at making breasts for mastectomy patients, but one thing they haven't been able to do is restore the sensation for patients.

Until now, mastectomy patients often have been unable to feel anything after the surgery when they touched their breast. Sawa says she has seen patients who have hurt themselves because of this from, for example, the heat of a hot water bottle.

But Sawa, a plastic and reconstruction surgeon, performed a procedure called an innervated deep inferior epigastric perforator free flap breast reconstruction. The goal is to eventually bring the sensation to a person who has had reconstructive surgery.

"What we do is we take the abdominal skin, in fact, that is normally thrown away in a tiny tummy tuck. And we use that to create the breast," Sawa said.

A photo of part of the surgical team who performed the eight hour breast reconstruction surgery. Left to right: Nicole Jan Registered Practical Nurse; Dr. Kathryn Sawa, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon; Dr. Cathy Chen, Anesthesiologist; Nicole Leishman, Registered Nurse (Submitted by Cambridge Memorial Hospital)

"Normally we would just connect those with microsurgery, connective tissue, the artery in the vein. But with this surgery, we reconnect little nerves in the chest to nerves in the abdominal tissue and that gives a patient potentially feeling."

The process of feeling sensation again can take about a year or more. Sawa says it remains to be seen whether the patient who had the surgery at Cambridge Memorial Hospital earlier this month will regain sensation. The hospital declined to connect CBC K-W with the patient for privacy reasons.

Sawa said people interested in the surgery should talk to their doctor.

"Not everybody is a candidate for this surgery," Sawa said. "That may be just because of their body type, their anatomy, as well as other medical conditions."


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