Women Warn Of Reconstructive Post-Breast Cancer Surgery

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Breast cancer is a devastating diagnosis that comes with a long list of big decisions. Some women often opt for reconstruction surgery. But some blame one popular procedure for making matters even worse.

A TRAM Flap procedure is similar to a tummy tuck, transferring tissue from the abdomen to the chest to make a breast.

While most cases turn out fine, two Twin Cities women want to warn others of some side effects that could last a lifetime.

To say it’s consumed their lives doesn’t come close. Bonnie Roy and Taylor Piehl both had TRAM Flaps. They were both young mothers when they were blindsided by finding lumps in their breasts.

Bonnie Roy said the surgery cost her everything.

“I would say it pretty much took my life away,” Roy said.

Now, she juggles at least three places for therapy and is in constant pain. She wasn’t aware of what could happen.

“I just thought it was a simple procedure that I’d be willing to do … versus extensive surgeries after that,” Roy said.

Taylor Piehl also thought she would be OK after a few weeks.

“It’s one surgery. One time, you’re done; three weeks, you’re back to work; a month, you’re back to your life,” Piehl said.

That didn’t happen for either of these women. Roy’s incision kept tearing. She had to spend time in a wheelchair. Since the procedure removes a large part of the stomach muscle, Roy
struggled to sit and stand. Persistent pain and lack of stomach control eventually caused her to lose her job.

Piehl blames similar side effects for ending her marriage and putting her on disability.

Dr. David Ruebeck, of Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Piper Breast Center, did not perform Roy or Piehl’s surgeries, but he has done more than 500 TRAM flaps in his 14 years in practice. He said the reconstruction sounds good on paper.

“It sounds fantastic when you read about. I’d like to have the breast reconstructed with my own tissue, get rid of my tummy, flatten out the tummy,” Ruebeck said. “It sounds really good but there are some tradeoffs and some risks women have to be aware of.”

Ruebeck said it usually takes about a month to recover from TRAM surgery. He said implants are more common now. He also said there is no perfect solution for breast reconstruction, and that it’s best to have a referral from your primary doctor to a plastic surgeon.

Ruebeck explained that extreme side effects are rare but can happen.

“The worst case scenario would be a situation where weakness or pain or bulging becomes a daily problem. A disability keeps a person from working or exercising the way they like of effecting posture or other comfort,” Dr. Ruebeck said. “That’s quite unusual. There’s not much that can be done about it.”

In the years that have passed, both Roy and Piehl have both done their best to manage, but every day is a challenge.

“Even by us two meeting, you feel like you can come together with someone who understands,” Roy said.

They met by chance and have decided not to blame any doctor. Instead, they want women to know what could happen since they’re reminded every move they make.

“I would tell other women not to do it. It’s not worth taking a chance and flipping a coin,” Piehl said.

More from Liz Collin
  • Annemarie Pagdon Condito

    I am an 11 year survivor and experienced skin and muscle damage from radiation on my left breast that made conventional reconstruction impossible. I am very fortunate to have opted for a Latissimus Dorsi Flap, where the muscle and tissue are brought forward from the back through a tunnel under the skin. Yes, I have some limitations in mobility and odd muscle pulling on occasion. But the risks of the abdominal surgery scared me too much. Bottom lime is that my left side appears to look more natural than my right. The recovery is much longer, but the results have been very good for me.

  • Sara

    I am a two year breast cancer survivor and opted for th reconstruction but I used the implants. I am extremely happy with the results and have no issues what so ever. I wish both these women the best. It is a hard road to travel but your road has been made even harder. I will be thinking of you and hoping for the best.

  • Melissa

    When I listened to this story I started crying because my story is very similar. I had a prophylactic mastectomy do to a very strong family history of breast cancer and by the time I was 34 I had had already had two lumps removed. So my doctor and I decided that this would be my best option. At the time of my mastectomy I had stretchers but in. Two weeks later that I was hospitalized for a staph infection that required me to have the stretchers removed and I was in the hospital for a week. After I recovered from that my plastic surgeon felt that the TRAM would be my best option. I was only suppose to be in surgery for 13 hours but ended up being almost 17. The next morning I was rushed down for emergency surgery I finally got to go home. A week later my stomach and breasts started opening. After many surgeries to try and correct the problem I had to have a wound vac on my wounds due to not healing and how large they got. My stomach was hip bone to hip bone, pubic bone to middle of my abdomen and was about 2 1/2 to 3 inches deep. Both breasts opened up the entire length around the entire breast. It was about 2 inches wide and about an inch to an inch and a half deep. This took me about a year to heal with major pain. The entire time and a year later I was on 8 mg on dilaudid for pain. Since I have had the mastectomy my health has been bad, I have had so many surgeries that lost count and are still going through more. Because of everything I deal with a lot of pain especially back pain, I have lost my husband, my home, I can’t work, stand or sit up straight for more than 15 minutes. This has also caused me major depression because I have lost the ability to do things I loved and makes it difficult to cook and clean for my three children. I am so frustrated and do not know what to do. So I can relate to these two women and I Will pray for their pain relief and the return of their life. Sorry this comment was so long I am glad that I am not alone in this struggle.

  • Glenda

    I am a 2 1/2 year survivor, diagnosed at 37, and I had a TRAM flap. I had no issues with it and am doing just fine. I feel for the woman in this story and I hope that they can find the strength to get back to their lives. But I also want to say that what might not have worked for some women, does work for others. We are all different, built different, recover different. We need to remember to talk to our doctors, educate ourselves, and make the best decision for ourselves.

  • Pam Molden

    I feel your story about TRAM flap reconstruction is misleading. It seemed to go back and forth referencing stomach muscle and stomach tissue. The TRAM flap surgery is with stomach muscle. Reconstruction using tissue is called DIEP and is becoming a much better option for women as is doesn’t compromise muscle. Two years ago I had a breast cancer recurrence at age 39 and opted for the DIEP flap reconstruction. The plastic surgeon who performed my reconstruction doesn’t even do TRAM flap surgery anymore and is the premier surgeon in Minnesota for the DIEP flap. I have not had any issues with the DIEP flap and would enourage women to research all the options.

  • Marie

    I had the TRAM surgery 5 years ago. The surgery took 14.5 hours, and I was hospitalized for 5 days. I had several occurrences of bleeding and stitches opening up. I had to have 2 more repair surgeries, ending in January of 2007. I have not had any bleeding issues since that, and love not having to wear a bra. However, I am plagued by muscle cramping in my abdomen, and back pain. I am able to do most things, and have learned to live with it. I don’t think that there is any perfect surgery or reconstruction, but I really sympathize with the women in the story, and wish them better days ahead.

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