Women facing breast reconstruction have a new option

Dr. Todd Hicks

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Dr. Todd Hicks

Most women who have mastectomies to treat or prevent breast cancer are eligible for breast reconstruction. Premier Health is helping these patients prepare for reconstructive surgery following mastectomy with a tissue expander that produces less pain and discomfort and requires fewer trips to the doctor.

A tissue expander is a balloon-like device that has a soft, expandable polymer shell and is gradually filled with saline or air. Traditionally, doctors insert an expander during a mastectomy that is gradually filled with saline over a period of time, up to several months, to expand the skin and muscle of the chest wall and make space for a long-term reconstructive implant.

The saline expander is filled by the surgeon, using a needle to pierce the skin and inject saline into the expander through a port or injection area. This process requires patients to get repeated needle sticks and make numerous trips to their doctor’s office.

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The AeroForm Tissue Expander System in use at select Premier Health facilities allows patients who choose to have reconstructive surgery to have more control over their breast tissue expansion. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, which approved the AeroForm device in 2016, the system has two main components: a sterile implant with an outer shell made of silicone (called the “expander”) and a remote dosage controller (called the “controller”).

The expander contains a reservoir of compressed carbon dioxide. The controller is a hand-held device that communicates with the receiving antenna and electronics located in the expander. The controller is used to communicate to a valve in the reservoir to release carbon dioxide and gradually inflate the expander. The controller is pre-programmed to limit releasing a small amount of carbon dioxide once every three hours, up to a maximum of three times per day.

Since the AeroForm device is filled with air, there is no need for a needle and the patient has some control over expanding the device. The needle-free process can be accomplished discreetly at home or at work, and each dose takes only seconds to administer.

“The air expansion technique will eliminate logistical hurdles that dissuade some women from having reconstructions,” said Dr. Todd Hicks, a plastic surgeon at Premier Health. “Normally, they’re bound by my office hours and their work schedules. Some patients live an hour away from my office.” Plus, Hicks added, patients have been “poked and prodded enough” between their diagnosis and mastectomy, and they often are hesitant to undergo yet another painful process.

The AeroForm process for tissue expansion gives women a sense of control that they may feel cancer has taken from them. “Often, they feel powerless,” Hicks said of patients with cancer. “This can empower them to have more control over their recovery process.”

Clinical trials found that use of the AeroForm system reduced the expansion process from 46 days to 21 days on average and allowed women to get long-term implants a month sooner. Additionally, patients using the AeroForm device in clinical trials did not report any serious adverse events.

Patients should speak with their surgeon to find out whether a tissue expander is right for them following a mastectomy.

When patients are faced with a diagnosis of cancer, they want to know that their caregivers are providing the best possible treatment options. As a certified member of MD Anderson Cancer Network, a program of MD Anderson Cancer Center, Premier Health combines the best of what they provide locally with the expertise of one of the nation’s leading cancer centers to better serve patients.

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