New device allows patient to control tissue expansion after mastectomy

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New device allows patient to control tissue expansion after mastectomy - Alicia Vitarelli reports during Action News at 4:30pm on June 7, 2018. (WPVI)

Women seeking breast reconstruction after a mastectomy often have to undergo a time-consuming, uncomfortable process to prepare their skin.

A new invention is changing that, and a local surgeon has the device.

When Miriam Dougherty learned she had cancer, she was dead-set against reconstruction, either with her own tissue, or an implant.

"I don't want anything foreign being placed inside my body," she said.

However, two years later, she decided to look into implants.

"I was tired of looking like I had just been through the war with the flat chest. I didn't like wearing a prosthetic, it was heavy," said Miriam.

To create space for an implant, a tissue expander is implanted first. Normally, it's gradually filled with saline.

"Each week they come back and we normally add 50 to 100 cc's," said Dr. William Scarlett, plastic surgeon.

But the saline injections can be painful and the weekly doctor visits can be a nuisance.

Because Miriam now lives in Florida, Dr. Scarlett thought she'd be suitable for the new AirXpander.

It has a canister of carbon dioxide in it to let the patient control the expansion.

"They have a dose controller that they can put on top of their clothes and add volume each day, up to 3 times a day," said Dr. Scarlett.

Miriam said the daily changes boosted her spirits.

"I could start wearing shirts, I had a shape again," she said.

Dr. Scarlett says AirXpander can shorten treatment time and it gives patients something they yearn for - control.

"You can do this when you want, where you want," he said.

Miriam also involved her young adult daughters in the process, using it as teachable moment.

"It made them aware of the impact of cancer, and it doesn't have to be a scary situation," she said.

AirXpanders were FDA approved 2 years ago and are just beginning to catch on.

Dr. Scarlett doesn't think they'll completely replace saline expanders. However, they are good for patients who can operate the controller, and for whom weekly appointments are difficult.

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