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Breast reconstruction series (II): Timing of reconstruction

Breast reconstruction is a deeply personal and empowering journey for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery. One critical decision in this journey is the timing of breast reconstruction: whether to opt for primary reconstruction immediately after mastectomy or to choose secondary reconstruction at a later stage. Each approach has its own set of pros and cons, and the decision should be based on individual circumstances and preferences. In this comprehensive article, we will explore primary and secondary breast reconstruction, discussing the advantages, disadvantages, and key factors to consider when making this crucial choice.


Primary reconstruction involves having breast reconstruction surgery immediately following mastectomy. This means that when a woman wakes up from her mastectomy surgery, she already has a newly created breast mound in place. It should be noted that even for women whom opted for pirmary reconstruction, they will still need to go through subsequent procedures to reconstruction the nipple and areolar should they desire to do so. Primary reconstruction refers to the breast mound only. The primary reconstruction approach offers several advantages:

Pros of Primary Reconstruction:

1. Immediate Restoration of Body Image: One of the most significant benefits of primary reconstruction is the immediate restoration of body image. Waking up with a breast mound in place can provide emotional comfort and reduce the psychological impact of losing a breast.

2. Reduced Number of Surgeries and Anaesthesia:

Since primary reconstruction is performed in conjunction with mastectomy, it often requires fewer surgeries compared to secondary reconstruction. Fewer surgeries mean less overall recovery time and reduced medical expenses.

3. Streamlined Recovery:

Combining mastectomy and reconstruction can lead to a more streamlined recovery process. Patients can often heal from both procedures simultaneously, which can lead to quicker overall recovery.

Cons of Primary Reconstruction:

1. Potential Impact of Adjuvant Treatments:

Adjuvant cancer treatments like radiotherapy may be necessary after mastectomy. The timing of reconstruction can affect the long-term outcome. Radiation therapy after immediate reconstruction can lead to complications such as tissue damage and implant-related issues, potentially compromising the reconstruction's success. Breast implants tend to develop more complications after exposing to radiotherapy.

2. Limited Time for Decision-Making:

Opting for primary reconstruction doesn't leave much time for careful consideration of the available options. Some women may feel rushed in making such a significant decision. Women may still be processing the news of breast cancer when they are asked to make the decision for primary reconstruction.


Secondary reconstruction, on the other hand, involves delaying the reconstruction process, sometimes months or even years after the initial mastectomy surgery. This approach allows women to take their time to heal, weigh their options, and make a more informed decision about breast reconstruction.

Pros of Secondary Reconstruction:

1. Time for Healing and Decision-Making:

Secondary reconstruction provides ample time for physical and emotional healing after mastectomy. It allows women to recover fully, regain strength, and carefully consider their reconstruction choices.

2. Better Planning and Customization:

With secondary reconstruction, patients and their surgeons can plan and customize the reconstruction more precisely. This approach offers the opportunity to explore various reconstruction methods and choose the one that aligns best with their preferences and goals.

3. Adjuvant Treatment Compatibility:

Delaying reconstruction allow patients to complete adjuvant treatments like radiation therapy before undergoing reconstruction, reducing the risk of complications associated with the combination of radiation and immediate reconstruction. The reconstructed breast, be it patient's own body parts or breast implants, would not have been exposed to the adjuvant treatment (e.g. radiotherapy) and therefore less likely to suffer from related complications.

Cons of Secondary Reconstruction:

1. Extended Period without Reconstruction:

One of the main drawbacks of secondary reconstruction is the extended period without a breast mound. This can affect body image and self-esteem, potentially causing emotional distress.

2. Additional Surgeries and Recovery:

Secondary reconstruction often involves multiple surgeries, which can lead to a longer overall recovery period. Additionally, having reconstruction surgery at a later stage may require more time off work and may result in higher medical costs.

3. Potential Psychological Impact:

Some women may find the wait for reconstruction emotionally challenging, as it prolongs the period of living without a natural-looking breast.


When deciding between primary and secondary reconstruction, several factors should be taken into account:

1. Medical Condition: The patient's overall health and medical condition play a significant role in determining the timing of reconstruction. Adjuvant treatments, such as radiation therapy, can impact the choice. On one hand, advanced tumours that are likely to require radiation therapy may deter patient from primary reconstruction with implants. On the other hand, advanced tumours that require extensive skin removal may leave the patient no choice but to have flap reconstruction for skin coverage.

2. Personal Preferences:

Individual preferences and priorities are essential. Some women may prioritize immediate restoration of their body image, while others may value the opportunity to explore reconstruction options in detail.

3. Emotional and Psychological Well-being:

The emotional and psychological impact of living without a breast should not be underestimated. Some women may find immediate reconstruction to be emotionally comforting, while others may prefer to wait and make a more considered choice.

4. Social circumstances:

Discuss your surgical goals, expectations, and social circumstances with your healthcare team. Some women would delay reconstruction because they want to minimize recovery time to focus on work or young children and consider secondary reconstruction when certain aspects of their lives are more settled. Have an open discussion with your surgeon to learn your options.


The timing of breast reconstruction, whether opting for primary or secondary reconstruction, is a deeply personal decision. Both approaches have their own set of advantages and disadvantages, and the choice should be based on individual circumstances, preferences, and medical considerations. It is essential to consult with healthcare professionals who can provide guidance and support throughout this transformative journey.


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