October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month but relevant all year round.
On average, one in eight women in the United States will develop an invasive form of breast cancer during their lifetimes. Of these women, 70% are unaware of their breast reconstruction options and may be unable to pay for reconstruction.
This October, Welum interviewed the co-founder of AiRS Foundation (www.AiRSFoundation.org), Morgan Hare, who is also an AiRS Foundation Board Member, and Dr. Alexes Hazen, Director of the New York University Aesthetic Center and also an AiRS Foundation Board Member. AiRS is an organization that helps women with reconstructive breast surgery after breast cancer.
1. I heard that more than half of women who have breast cancer do not know about their options for reconstructive surgery. What are the options that women have in regards to reconstructive surgery?
This is unfortunately true, many many women do not get informed as to their reconstructive options when they get the diagnosis of breast cancer. And there are many options for both mastectomy reconstruction and also for lumpectomy. The good news is that reconstruction has evolved, and there are many wonderful options for all body shapes and sizes from the use of implants, or using your own fat for fat injection, to using skin and and fat from one part of the body and transferring it to another. There are multiple aspects of breast reconstruction - the breast mound - the nipple and the areola. In the case of lumpectomy sometimes it is a matter of recreating symmetry through reconstruction.
2. How do you think reconstructive surgery will help women to feel whole again after they have had a mastectomy?
Dr. Hazen: It’s very important for a sense of wellbeing and a sense of self and confidence. Ideally you can heal and be cured of cancer and move on with your life - the reconstruction often makes that process easier.
3. What does AiRS do to help women follow through with their choice of
Morgan Hare: Our staff and volunteer patient advocates walk alongside women who have had mastectomies due to breast cancer until they receive reconstruction. We are one of the few organizations out there who help women heal completely from breast cancer. While killing the cancerous cells is the most important part of any treatment plan, it’s not the only step toward healing fully. We help women get through the emotionally fraught days, months, and even years after a mastectomy until they feel like themselves again.
4. What follow-up support does AiRS provide?
Morgan Hare: Our advocates continue to follow our patients for as long as they need support. This can be anytime between one month to one year or longer in some cases.
5. How do you find physicians/surgeons for your organization? Who are some of the physicians that are a part of AiRS and where are they located?
Morgan Hare: The Foundation works in partnership with physicians throughout the US. Many times a woman has already seen a plastic surgeon. We vet them to insure the best possible outcome. If they don’t have a plastic surgeon, we will refer them to a doctor who is known by our board members. Drs. Rod Rohrich, Alexes Hazen, Peter Corriero, Keven Small, Jay Orringer are all on the board.
6. How does one apply for assistance for reconstructive surgery through AiRS?
Morgan Hare: There is an application on the AiRS website. We ask that they fill it out and send it to us via email or regular mail.
7. How long is the grant review process?
Morgan Hare: Once we receive an application, we review it to insure that it is filled out correctly. Depending on the need we have approved some surgeries in one day. Most are approved within one to two weeks. As always, there are exceptions for those who have more complicated medical history and we want to ensure that they are ok for surgery before approving them.
8. Will you accept non-US citizens? And do you have a network of physicians
Morgan Hare: We do accept women living in the US even if they are not citizens. We do not have a network of physicians worldwide. At this point we only help women living in the US.
9. I recently did a photoshoot for a brand called Ana Ono who makes lingerie for women with breast cancer and most of them had tattoos to cover up their scars and the fact that they have no nipples. What do you think about this?
Morgan Hare: Every woman who has had a mastectomy might not feel the need for reconstructive surgery. What a woman does post-mastectomy is very personal. Some women prefer to go flat, some get tattoos, others get 3D nipple tattoos. We don’t judge. We are just here to help women who want
10. I also met a woman that had tried implants three times and kept getting infections as her body rejected the implants and she decided to remain flat. Can you give me any comments on this?
Dr. Hazen: It is not typical but sometimes women can have trouble with implants either due to infection or due to scarring around the implant. If this happens repeatedly, then it is wise to try another reconstructive option like fat or a flap.
11. Is there anything else you would like to tell me about AiRS, or anything you want to share about reconstructive breast surgery and breast cancer?
Morgan Hare: The AiRS Foundation…Alliance in Reconstructive Surgery Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness for women who have had mastectomies and want reconstructive surgery, but cannot afford it. The American Cancer Society lists the AiRS Foundation as a resource for patient wanting the surgery but can’t afford the costs associated with reconstruction.
The cost factor has a big impact on a women’s decision to get or not get reconstruction. Even though they might have insurance, a women might not have the fund to cover the co-pay, or they may not have any insurance. Many of the women who apply to us for a grant are at the poverty level and can’t meet the co-pay.
The Women's Health and Cancer Rights Act (WHCRA) helps protect many women with breast cancer who choose to have their breasts rebuilt (reconstructed) after a mastectomy. This federal law requires most group insurance plans that cover mastectomies to also cover breast reconstruction.
We educate women about their post-mastectomy options especially when considering that a great percentage of women diagnosed with breast cancer are unsure of — or unaware of — their reconstruction options. Most breast cancer survivors who have had a complete or partial mastectomy (removal of all or some of the breast tissue and nipple) are candidates for breast reconstruction. This surgery will help them regain their self-confidence and feel whole again.