In France, the reconstruction rate is around 23% (PMSI national 2011). The rate is 32.1% at Institut Curie, a national cancer institute in Paris. Other studies have shown that reconstruction rates tend to be higher in specialized cancer-treatment centers (Kruper et al. 2011; Jeevan et al. 2010; Hvilsom et al. 2011; Morrow et al. 2001), and our study supports this finding, with a reconstruction rate well above the national average.
Previous studies have shown that younger patients are more likely to have reconstruction compared to older patients (Kruper et al. 2011; Jeevan et al. 2010; Morrow et al. 2001; Reaby 1998; Fallbjork et al. 2010; Al-Allak et al. 2010; Christian et al. 2006; Joslyn 2005; Rowland et al. 2000). In our study, age over 50 was significantly associated with nonreconstruction in patients with invasive cancer, but only approached significance in patients with in situ cancer. It has been theorized that this difference may reflect physicians’ attitudes, the fact that older women attach less importance to body image, or that they have more comorbidities. A recent review on reconstruction in older patients cites the fear of complications as a major dissuasive factor, even though studies have shown that age in itself is not a risk factor for poor surgical outcomes (Walton et al. 2011).
Pathology tumor stage has also been shown to be an important predictor of nonreconstruction (Morrow et al. 2001; Christian et al. 2006; Joslyn 2005). In our study, patients with primary invasive cancer were much less likely to undergo reconstruction than those with in situ cancer or local recurrence. The probable explanation is that, in the latter two cases, reconstruction can be performed at the same time as mastectomy, thereby limiting the number of additional surgical interventions, as illustrated by the fact that, in almost 83% of patients with in situ cancer who had reconstruction, the procedure was immediate. In addition, these patients did not receive post-operative radiotherapy. In our study, in patients with invasive cancer, radiotherapy significantly reduced the odds of having reconstruction, however confounding factors may be present, including cancer stage and type of reconstruction. In most patients with a history of radiotherapy, autologous reconstruction is required because the complication rate with implant-based reconstruction is greater than 40% (Barry & Kell 2011; Kronowitz & Robb 2009). The advantages and disadvantages of the different techniques enter into the patient’s final decision as concerns delayed reconstruction (Alderman et al. 2002; Cordeiro & McCarty 2006; Rouzier et al. 2000).
For the majority of patients, the decision not to have nonreconstruction was reportedly a personal choice. The major reason was refusal of further surgery. Clearly it is legitimate for patients to be reluctant to have surgery that is not necessarily perceived to be an integral part of treatment of the disease as such. Patients’ concerns about the number of surgeries and the duration of recovery may outweigh the potential benefits in terms of cosmesis and quality of life.
Acceptance of body asymmetry by the patient herself and/or by her partner was frequently reported as the reason for not having reconstruction. This finding points to a potential weakness in the study, i.e. the fact that the questionnaire was sent out several years after the initial decision concerning reconstruction was taken. As a result, the responses probably reflect to some extent what patients considered to be the reason(s) for not having reconstruction at the time of filling out the questionnaire. Nevertheless, the decision is not necessarily taken ‘once and for all’. The availability of delayed reconstruction means that the option may remain open for several years after mastectomy, as illustrated by the fact that, at the time of analysis in our study, the median time to delayed reconstruction was about 1½ years, with a maximum of almost 6½ years. For this reason, while we recognize it as a potential weakness, we do not believe that it undermines the validity of the finding.
The risk of complications was reported as the reason for not having reconstruction by almost 30% of patients, which is lower than the percentages seen in other studies (Shameem et al. 2008; Alderman & Jagsi 2010). Endorsement of this reason indicates that the patients were aware of the potential complications. Although the source of the information could not be ascertained, a recent review by Potter et al. highlights problems in reporting outcomes in reconstruction, particularly as concerns the assessment of surgical complications (Potter et al. 2010).
Fear of masking recurrence of the disease was reported by 18% of patients. Considerably higher percentages have been reported elsewhere (Shameem et al. 2008; Alderman & Jagsi 2010), even though studies going back as far as the mid-1990s do not support the fear that reconstruction might interfere with postoperative cancer surveillance. This finding has obvious implications in terms of patient counseling, suggesting that, with better information, patients might overcome their fear.
Age was not listed among the multiple-choice responses on the questionnaire, but was added in the free-text section ‘Other reason(s)’ by almost a quarter of patients, making this an important finding. The reasons why age in itself should be a major factor have not been fully elucidated, but certainly merit further investigation.
As expected, financial considerations were not a major factor since, under the publicly funded healthcare system in France, patients do not have to pay for the procedure, theoretically at least. In practice, however, access to reconstruction in public institutions is restricted by the limited number of surgeons and availability of operating theaters. As a result, a number of patients in France are led to consult in private hospitals, which entails additional costs, borne by the patient herself or by patient-funded complementary health insurance. Financial cost as a reason for not having reconstruction, as reported by 14% of patients, reflects a problem of access to the procedure within our institution.
Finally, post-mastectomy pain was reported by 6.5% of patients. Similar to acceptance of body asymmetry, this reason for not having reconstruction reflects the ongoing nature of the decision and is relevant only to patients who were offered or were considering delayed reconstruction. It suggests the need for better control of complications following mastectomy.
Sixty-one patients completed the questions related to the source of and satisfaction with information on reconstruction. While the questionnaire did not preclude patients from citing more than one response, only one respondent cited two sources of information, pointing to another potential weakness in our findings. More than three-quarters of patients reported that the information had been received from a medical source, most often (63%) a source within Institut Curie: a surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a doctor or nurse, or from the Institut website or review (Table 6), however the actual proportion is almost certainly even higher. Although provision of information is not recorded in patients’ files, standard procedures at Institut Curie make it nearly impossible for a patient who is eligible for reconstruction not to be informed of this option.
It is therefore noteworthy that, in 40% of patients overall, the decision was taken after receiving information they considered to be ‘entirely unsatisfactory’. A similar figure was found in the National Mastectomy and Breast Reconstruction Audit in 2010, in which 41.6% of mastectomy-only patients reported they had been “given no information” (Mayor 2010). As concerns our finding, it is probably not only a question of quantity or even of quality, but also of timing and the method of delivering information prior to mastectomy, i.e. at a time when many patients may not be highly receptive.
Another study has been set up to investigate the provision of information in our institution, involving patients and care-givers on an equal footing.