Breast cancer patients who had reconstructive surgery using implants immediately after mastectomies were twice as likely to develop infections as women who immediately had breast reconstruction using their own tissue, according to a study published yesterday.
The article in Archives of Surgery, which examined the medical records of breast surgery patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis from mid-1999 to mid-2002, found that 50 of 949 patients got an infection at the surgical site within a year after surgery.
Roughly 12 percent of the infections occurred in mastectomy patients who immediately had implant surgery, compared with roughly 6 percent of infections in those who immediately had breast reconstruction using their own abdominal tissue, the study found.
In noncancer patients, about 1 percent of infections occurred after breast reductions, and no infections occurred after breast augmentation using implants, the study said.
"The bottom line is that implants are associated with an increased risk of infection in breast cancer patients," said Margaret A. Olsen, the lead author of the study and a research assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "The question is what factors contribute to this increased risk and what can be done to prevent it?"
The study noted whether patients had other medical conditions such as diabetes, but it did not report how many underwent radiation or other treatments that might have played a role in the infections.
The study did analyze the cost to the medical center of each infection - about $4,100 per patient - a hospital-acquired complication not covered by managed care, she said.
But both kinds of reconstructive surgery entail risk.
Stephen R. Colen, the chairman of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said operations using abdominal tissue took several hours longer than implant surgery, increasing the risk of blood clots and lung embolisms. In 2 percent of patients, the transplanted tissue dies, requiring further surgery, Colen said.
But implant reconstruction inserts a foreign object into the body, providing a surface on which bacteria can grow.
And implantation involves a series of procedures - including one surgery to insert a skin-stretching device in the chest, followed by saline injections to expand the breast, another surgery to put in a permanent implant and a final surgery to attach a nipple - creating more occasions for infection to occur, Colen said.
Keith E. Brandt, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University and an author of the study, said all patients received prophylactic antibiotics at the time of surgery.
But post-surgical treatments for breast cancer, like radiation, can weaken the body's ability to fight infection.