Reconstructive plastic surgeons ready patients to face life after cancer
Research changing and influencing patient care
The number of MD Anderson reconstructive plastic surgeons has grown from 11 in 2002 to 19 in 2011. In that same period, total cases have soared from 1,505 to 4,260. Breast reconstruction is the most common procedure, with head and neck reconstruction second.
The team’s growth and expertise have fueled research, stoked the internationally acclaimed fellowship program and encouraged greater collaboration with a wide range of other disciplines.
In the coming year, reconstructive plastic surgery will be offered at the institution's regional care centers.
Through the decades, these surgeons have contributed significantly to MD Anderson’s body of research that has changed or influenced the standard of care.
Discoveries include limb-sparing surgery for bone tumors and sarcomas, a new flap strategy for pharyngeal reconstruction and clinical guidelines for determining the best approach for reconstruction on patients who have had a total or partial mastectomy and who may need radiation.
Steven Kronowitz, M.D., professor in the Department of Plastic Surgery, has led a number of the groundbreaking studies that enable more women to wake up from their mastectomies or lumpectomies with a breast.
Today, with skin-sparing breast surgery and the use of tissue expanders, breast implants are positioned at the time of a full or partial mastectomy and filled when the time is clinically appropriate, even if the patient is scheduled for radiation.
According to Kronowitz, it now is common for radiation oncologists to observe or assist with filling or deflating the expanders so the precise size will correspond with the treatment plans.
Before the research, as late as the 1970s, women would have their breast or tumor removed but often were unsure if they would need radiation later. Reconstruction often was delayed for years, so it would not hinder possible follow-up treatment.
“With this new standard of care, women don’t have to go back to the dark ages,” Kronowitz says. “They can wake up from surgery with a breast and still have the necessary follow-up care without any difference in survival.”
Kronowitz and his colleagues also are exploring new reconstruction techniques after a partial mastectomy. Though lumpectomy is common, more research is needed on maximizing the remaining tissue for rebuilding the breast.
3D aids precision
Another area of research is in jaw replacement and reconstruction in which Matthew Hanasono, M.D., and Roman Skoracki, M.D., both associate professors in the Department of Plastic Surgery, are collaborating.
The two have helped develop software that uses MRI or CT scans to model the patient’s jawbone and surrounding structures in 3D, providing precise measurements for surgeons in the operating room.
Using the software in their planning, the surgeons employ the model to shape the patient’s fibula (a leg bone) into a new jaw. The meticulous measurements taken in advance can reduce time under anesthesia and result in a jaw that improves the patient’s appearance and ability to chew and speak.
MD Anderson performs more jaw reconstructions than any other center in the nation, but, for now, the experimental modeling is used only in the most complex cases.
Hanasono, like Robb, trained first as a head and neck surgeon. Along with his colleagues, he now operates on patients who face severe disfigurement and function loss.
“I wanted to do the most challenging reconstructive surgery and that was in head and neck,” says Hanasono, who, with Skoracki, leads the largest fellowship training program in reconstructive plastic surgery in the world. “We see patients at their best and worst, but the motivation they show is inspirational. We don’t count out anyone.”
“When you prepare for a case, you have to plan for multiple scenarios in your head. If the surgeon removing the tumor runs into problems, how can they be fixed? If the cancer is more widespread than thought, what’s the plan? What if the bone I want to use is not in good shape? Preparation and working closely with colleagues early on are key.”
A change in patient care
Other reconstructive plastic surgeons and their teams also have research under way on lymphedema and the use of robotics. They are also exploring new approaches for treating skin conditions, restoring erectile function through nerve reconstruction and growing tissue in the laboratory.
Randal Weber, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, and Mark Chambers, D.M.D., professor in the department, say that new reconstruction techniques have changed the way they approach their patients’ care.
“Knowing that the reconstructive plastic surgeons on our team have top-level expertise and tools allows my colleagues and me to access and remove tumors we may never have tried before,” Weber says. “Knowing that patients can have quality of life after major head and neck surgery gives me additional flexibility, and that can mean a better outcome for a patient.”