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From OncoLog, April-May 2010, Vol. 55, No. 4-5

Graphic: House Call

Addressing the Cosmetic Effects of Breast Cancer

Photo: WomanMost women undergoing treatment for breast cancer will experience, at least temporarily, some change in their appearance. The measures outlined below can give such women more choices for their appearance, both during and after cancer treatment.

Breast prostheses and reconstruction

Mastectomy, the complete removal of a breast, is sometimes performed to treat breast cancer. Described below are three methods of breast reconstruction used after a mastectomy.

  • Breast prostheses. Breast prostheses offer a simple cosmetic solution for women who have had a mastectomy. Made of materials such as foam or silicone, these devices can be sewn into the lining of a bra or attached to the chest with adhesive, creating symmetry with the other breast. Many prostheses have the same weight as the remaining breast to reduce the feeling of “lopsidedness” and to minimize back strain.
  • Breast implants. Implants filled with saline or silicone gel can be inserted into the chest to create a new breast. The procedure is often performed on an outpatient basis and is cheaper than reconstruction using the patient’s own tissue (discussed next). However, because they are synthetic, implants can leak or rupture and may need to be replaced at least once in the woman’s lifetime.
  • Tissue flap reconstruction. Another type of breast reconstruction uses a segment of tissue (muscle, fat, and/or skin) taken from the abdomen or upper back to form a new breast. Surgeons can sometimes reconstruct the nipple to make the reconstructed breast look more natural. Because a flap uses the woman’s own tissue, the reconstruction often feels more natural than an implant. However, reconstruction is more expensive and can involve more pain and a longer recovery than an implant procedure.


Sometimes, breast cancer treatment causes lymphedema—a swelling caused by the buildup of an immune system fluid called lymph. Lymphedema results when the lymph vessels that normally drain lymph away are damaged during treatment, allowing the lymph to collect under the skin. Lymphedema can be painful and disfiguring, but many patients are able to find relief by carefully managing their condition:

  • Massage and other techniques can keep lymph moving and reduce buildup.
  • Preventing infection and other physical strain can help prevent lymph buildup from worsening.
  • Comfortable clothing can improve the swelling. Ask your doctor or nurse for more detailed information on treating lymphedema. In many locations, support groups and counseling are available as well.

Hair loss

Many chemotherapy drugs cause hair loss—from the scalp, face, and body. Chemotherapy-related hair loss (alopecia), which usually begins 7 to 21 days after the start of treatment, is temporary and can be concealed. Some tips for dealing with the loss of hair are outlined below.

  • Some women prefer to wear a wig. Ideally, a wig should be selected before hair loss begins so that it can be matched the matched to the woman’s natural hair color. A quality synthetic hairpiece can cost up to $500 and may be covered by insurance.
  • Hats and scarves are a popular choice, since many styles and matching options are available.
  • Hair eventually will regrow, although it may have a different look or texture. When the hair begins to grow back, only mild shampoos should be used. Styling techniques and products should be avoided, since they may damage the new hair.

Cosmetics and skin care

Dry or sallow skin sometimes results from breast cancer or treatment side effects. Moisturizers and cosmetics can be used to treat or conceal such skin problems.

Cosmetics can also be helpful in recreating eyelashes and eyebrows and changing one’s overall appearance.

For more help on improving your appearance during and after breast cancer, visit

For more information on this topic or for questions about MD Anderson’s treatments, programs, or services, call askMDAnderson at (877) MDA-6789.

Other articles in OncoLog, April-May 2010 issue:


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