Losing Breast Sensation After A Mastectomy

For many women, the decision to undergo a mastectomy can be life-saving. But like many surgeries, there may be side effects that women are either unaware of or they don’t fully understand the physical and emotional impact of these effects post-surgery. One such side effect is the loss of breast sensation after a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery.

Many women facing breast reconstruction invest a great deal of time researching the best possible treatments, surgeons and top hospitals. They spend hours with their doctors asking questions and gathering all the facts in order to make informed decisions. They have many choices to make and many options to weigh. Questions such as “Who will perform my surgery?”; “What are the risks involved?”; “What will recovery be like?”; or “How will my breasts look after reconstruction?” may be first and foremost on a woman’s mind. With the overwhelming amount of information to process, thinking about loss of breast sensation may not be a top concern until after they are through the procedure and have come out on the other side.

In fact, many women are often surprised to encounter the extent of the loss of breast sensation they experience after a mastectomy or reconstructive surgery. The entire breast, including the chest, may feel numb—an outcome they may not have expected even if their surgeon mentioned it as a side effect. With body image still being a main concern in our society, emphasis may be put on the way a reconstructed breast looks and how it feels to the touch to someone else, but not how it feels to her.

Dr. Ivica Ducic, Medical Director at AxoGen Corporation, a global leader in innovative surgical solutions for peripheral nerve injuries, addresses the importance of restoring breast sensation as part of the standard of care for woman undergoing breast reconstruction. “Women have a right to breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, but that reconstruction has been limited to shape until now. It’s time to expand the definition to restoring sensation too.”


How nerves are affected during a mastectomy

It is critically important for women to understand how nerves are affected during their breast surgery, how this will affect breast sensation, and how loss of breast sensation may ultimately impact the quality of their lives.

During a mastectomy, the breast tissue is removed, severing the nerves that provide feeling to the breast and nipple. When nerves are severed, nerve signals are disrupted. This results in numbness and loss of sensation to the breast area. Some nerve fibers may regenerate, resulting in some feeling being restored, but for most women the outcome is a complete lack of sensation. Others may experience “phantom pain” or “phantom sensations” as nerves regrow during recovery. Referred to as post-mastectomy syndrome, women may experience a pins and needles sensation, extreme sensitivity, swelling of the chest area, breast tightness, an itching or a crawling sensation, and limited mobility. There are ways to manage the discomfort of post-mastectomy syndrome with medications, but in many cases, women have few options and over time are left to adapt to the physical discomfort caused by nerve damage.


How loss of breast sensation impacts women

Although it is possible to recover some breast sensation in the months after breast surgery, a woman’s breasts may never feel exactly the same as they did before the procedure. Research has shown that loss of breast sensation can affect women’s body image and psychological health, as well as increase risk of injury. As advancements in breast reconstruction continue to progress, surgeons are looking for ways to enhance women’s quality of life post-surgery. It is not just about restoring body image, it’s about trying to regain the life they had before a diagnosis, treatment and surgery.

For many women, tissue they can’t feel doesn’t feel like their own—it may feel alien to them. They’ve undergone reconstruction to feel whole again, yet they now have breasts that feel like inanimate objects. Loss of breast sensation can greatly affect emotional well-being and intimacy. These emotional issues, which may be coupled with the physical discomfort of post-mastectomy syndrome, can be devastating for women.


Breast neurotization with ReSensationTM offers new hope for women with loss of breast sensation

In the past, the intended goal of breast reconstruction surgery has been focused on size, shape, symmetry and softness. But what about sensation? According to Dr. Ducic, the development of surgical techniques that provide the potential to restore breast sensation have been the missing component in this surgery. “Sensation was the silent ‘S’ of breast reconstruction that was never spoken about. It’s now time to provide patients with a technique that has the potential to restore sensation post-mastectomy.”

An innovative new technique is finally providing the potential to address loss of breast sensation – a highly advanced nerve repair procedure called ReSensation.

For women who choose to have breast reconstruction, they have two options: reconstruction with an implant or reconstruction using their own tissue, a procedure called autologous or free flap breast reconstruction.

The autologous reconstruction procedure uses a woman’s own skin, fat and blood vessels to rebuild the breast mound. Women who opt for the autologous flap procedure using their own tissue are now being offered the possibility of gaining back sensation in their breasts through a breast neurotization technique called ReSensation. This leading-edge surgical technique reconnects the nerves in the flap tissue to the chest nerves using allograft nerve tissue. The free flap surgery and the ReSensation procedure are performed at the same time, so no additional surgeries are needed. For women, the result is a newly constructed breast that looks much like the breast they had before – and with sensation potentially restored over time.


ReSensation: Improving the standard of care in autologous (free flap) breast reconstruction

Autologous breast reconstruction with ReSensation may potentially have a positive impact on quality of life. Yet many women are not aware that this opportunity exists. Dr. Ducic discusses the importance of bringing awareness to women about losing sensation after a mastectomy. “Up until now, nobody really talked about loss of sensation post-mastectomy. We want to ensure that women are aware that it can happen, but also that there is an opportunity to restore feeling with ReSensation. This will help her make the best decision when it comes to reconstructive surgery.”

Women undergoing autologous breast reconstruction (with the use of their own tissue) and breast neurotization using the ReSensation technique have the potential for their breasts to look and feel much like their own. AxoGen is currently leading the way in breast neurotization technology by utilizing allograft nerve tissue, as part of the ReSensation technique, to bridge the gap between the nerve endings of the autologous flap and the chest. ReSensation provides a scaffold to support the regenerating nerve fibers, offering the opportunity to regain sensation.

The ultimate goal is to aid women in healing emotionally, physically and mentally after breast cancer treatment, Dr. Ducic says. “The more we can help a woman restore normal sensation after mastectomy, the better her health will be. That’s why ReSensation could become the next standard of care for women having breast reconstruction after mastectomy.”

Woman deserve to feel normal again after a mastectomy. It is important to understand the options available to you that may help provide you with the best possible quality of life. To find out if you may be a candidate for ReSensation, read our most frequently asked questions, download our patient education brochure or talk to your breast surgeon about your options.

Allison Verheul, RN