What is breast reconstruction?

Breast reconstruction uses surgery to make a new breast shape. You may have reconstruction after an operation to remove the breast (mastectomy) to treat breast cancer

A new breast shape can be made using a breast implant or tissue from another part of the body. The surgeon aims to match the reconstructed breast to your other breast as much as possible. You usually need further surgery to the reconstructed breast or other breast to improve the final appearance. 

If you are having risk-reducing breast surgery you will have both breasts removed (bilateral mastectomy).  This is why we use breast (s) in this content. 

Breast reconstruction may be done:

  • at the same time as a mastectomy (called immediate reconstruction) 
  • as a second operation months or sometimes years later (called delayed reconstruction).

Breast reconstruction may not be suitable for some women. This is because some medical conditions might increase the risk of complications during and after surgery. Your surgeon or nurse can tell you more about this.

Reconstruction after breast-conserving surgery

Women who have part of their breast removed (breast-conserving surgery) do not usually need breast reconstruction. 

But if you have a large amount of  tissue removed after breast-conserving surgery you may be offered partial breast reconstruction to improve the appearance of the breast.

Having breast reconstruction surgery

Breast reconstruction is done by an oncoplastic breast surgeon (breast reconstructive surgeon) or a plastic surgeon. Oncoplastic surgeons are trained in breast cancer surgery and some types of breast reconstruction.

Decisions about breast reconstruction

Before you make a decision about having breast reconstruction you will talk to your surgeon and breast care nurse. They will advise you on the types of reconstruction that are most suitable for you. It often helps to have a list of questions to ask.

Both your breast surgeon and your reconstructive surgeon will be sensitive to your thoughts and feelings about breast reconstruction. So do not be afraid to ask about anything you are concerned about.

Smoking and breast reconstruction

If you smoke, your surgeon will talk to you about the benefits of giving up smoking before surgery.

If you smoke, you are much more likely to develop problems during breast reconstruction. Smoking damages blood vessels.  People who smoke are more likely to have problems with wound healing. They are also much more likely to have complications with breast reconstruction operations.

Even if you only stop smoking for a few weeks, this will reduce the risk of complications. So if you smoke, try to stop before surgery and do not smoke during the recovery period. Your hospital and GP will give you help and support to stop smoking.

Types of breast reconstruction

There are different types of breast reconstruction. The new breast shape (s) can be made using a breast implant, or tissue taken from another part of your body. Some women may have a combination of both. 

  • Reconstruction using a breast implantbreast implant can be put under or sometimes in front of the chest muscle to make a new breast shape.
  • Reconstruction using your own tissue - Reconstruction using your own tissue (flap reconstruction) can give a more natural shape and feel to the reconstructed breast. Most flap reconstructions use tissue from the tummy (abdomen). But tissue from the backbuttocks or thighs can also be used.
  • Reconstruction using implants and your own tissue - The surgeon makes a breast shape using implants and tissue taken from another part of your body.

Your surgeon will advise you on the type of reconstruction that is most suitable for you. It will depend on:

  • your preference
  • your general health
  • your body build and the shape and size of your breasts
  • whether you have had or are going to have radiotherapy to your chest
  • how much of your breast tissue has already been removed
  • how healthy the tissue and skin are on your breast and on other areas of your body that may be used (donor sites).
Download our guide to breast reconstruction options.

After your operation

Your breast care nurse will give you advice and support on what to expect after breast reconstruction.

Breast reconstruction surgery has a risk of complications. Most complications are mild and can be treated. But some women have more serious or long-term problems. Smoking, being overweight or having diabetes can increase this risk.

Improving the final look and shape

You may have other operations or procedures  to complete the final look and shape of the new breast shape. Some may be done at the same time as your breast reconstruction and others may happen later.

  • Nipple reconstruction

    If your nipple was removed as part of a mastectomy you may be offered nipple reconstruction, nipple tattooing or a nipple prosthesis.

  • Lipomodelling

    Your surgeon can inject fat into your breast to improve dents or unevenness in the new breast shape. This is called lipomodelling.

  • Further surgery

    You may be offered further surgery to improve the new breast shape. If you had one breast reconstructed you may have surgery to your other breast so that your breasts match in shape and size.

After breast reconstruction

Before you leave hospital, you will be given an appointment for a check-up or to plan further treatment, if you are having it.

If it is needed, the ward nurses can arrange for district nurses to visit you at home and look at any wounds and dressings.

It is important to continue checking your natural breast and reconstructed breast(s) for any abnormalities or changes. Your doctor will also regularly examine your breasts after your reconstruction.

We have more information about recovering at home after breast reconstruction.

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