How Difficult Is It To Recover From DIEP Flap Surgery?
For many women, treatment and recovery from breast cancer aren’t limited to chemotherapy and surgery. Whether they undergo a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, understanding how their breasts will look in the future is important to many women, and there are many options available for reconstruction.
Deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap surgery is suited to women who undergo a mastectomy, as it creates a new breast using existing healthy tissue from the patient’s body, rather than an implant. DIEP surgery uses skin, fatty tissue and blood vessels from the abdominal area. This is used to create a breast with natural-looking results and a faster recovery time, as no muscle is cut or displaced from the abdomen.
It’s possible to undergo DIEP flap breast reconstruction at the same time as having a mastectomy, to save having two operations. If you’re considering a DIEP flap surgery for your breast reconstruction, we’ve covered some of the most common questions below:
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- How will I feel immediately after DIEP flap surgery?
- How long is the recovery process?
- How difficult will it be to move after the surgery?
- How do I take care of my incisions and dressings?
- How can I make recovery easier?
- What potential complications should I be aware of?
- How is the recovery process of DIEP flap surgery compared to other reconstructive surgeries?
How will I feel immediately after DIEP flap surgery?
If you have the procedure at the same time as a mastectomy, you will feel more soreness than if you had undergone one operation. Your care team can prescribe painkillers as necessary to help manage this. As a reconstructive surgery, your stomach and breast will both feel painful and tender. But you will find that as the DIEP flap surgery does not remove any abdominal muscle, the overall recovery process will be quicker.
How long is the recovery process?
Patients typically spend between three and five days in hospital following the procedure, depending on how the post-op starts to heal and how the pain is being managed.
Once discharged, the total recovery time for a DIEP flap surgery can be up to three months. This is due to the size of the area where tissue is taken from the lower abdomen and certain lifestyle factors that can affect the speed of recovery time, such as not allowing enough time to rest properly. You may have regular check-ups during this time with your surgical team to assess how your healing is progressing and to check no infection sets in after surgery.
How difficult will it be to move after the surgery?
As DIEP flap reconstruction involves removing fat tissues and a large piece of skin from the abdomen, you’ll likely find that tasks such as sitting down or standing up will be difficult. This is because these seemingly simple movements use a lot of core muscles.
Walking should be possible within a couple of days post-surgery, although you may find it uncomfortable. To ensure you have long-term mobility, muscle strength and range of movement, consider working with a physiotherapist to help you rebuild strength.
How do I take care of my incisions and dressings?
It’s important to take care of any incisions and dressings to prevent infection, keep wounds clean and promote healthy healing of the abdominal tissue to limit scarring. DIEP flap surgery requires incisions in the breast and abdominal skin, and potentially the underarm if a mastectomy is carried out at the same time and your lymph nodes are affected.
Because of this, there will be several sites to keep clean and free of infection. Your surgical team may place drains in your breast and abdominal wall incisions; this is normal and helps reduce swelling. These are usually removed before you go home.
Wash your wounds carefully with plain water and pat with a clean towel to remove all moisture from the area, allowing them to air dry. Showers are advised over baths as soaking the wounds can weaken stitches and soften new scar tissue, slowing the healing process.
If you have been recommended to dress your wounds, use the dressings provided by your care team, and change as needed. Your team can offer advice on how to dress and take care of your wounds.
As with any surgery, a DIEP flap surgery leaves scars, most noticeably on the lower abdomen below the belly button. With proper care after surgery, your wound should heal into a neat scar that will fade over time.
How can I make recovery easier?
Get plenty of rest in the early weeks after surgery, and try not to move too much as you risk aggravating the wounds. Your surgeon might recommend a girdle or surgical compression garment to help support your abdomen and hold the tissues in place. A supportive sports bra may also be recommended for the reconstructed breast. You can take painkillers as needed to keep comfortable—you might find these useful at night.
If you live alone, perhaps arrange for a friend or family member to stay, as you may need help with things around the house—don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Eat a healthy diet rich in proteins to help support the building of new blood vessels and skin cells, keep hydrated, and cut back on alcohol and tobacco.
What potential complications should I be aware of?
All surgeries carry the risk of complications, even though we have a 99% success rate with our DIEP flap procedure. Complications that could arise include bleeding or infection, fat lumps forming in the breast tissue, bulging or hernia (at the abdomen), and slow healing. If you have any concerns, always speak with your care team.
How is the recovery process of DIEP flap surgery compared to other reconstructive surgeries?
Compared to other reconstructive surgeries like TRAM flap or breast implants, DIEP flap surgery has a quicker healing time because it uses your own abdominal tissue and does not cut into the muscle. By not using implants, the breasts look and feel more natural, something we find patients are pleased with.
What are the benefits of DIEP flap surgery?
A faster recovery time and more natural-looking final results.
Is DIEP breast reconstruction right for me?
If you’ve undergone a mastectomy and have enough skin and soft tissue in your abdomen to create a new breast, DIEP is an excellent option—but it is important to remember that this is not a tummy tuck.
Is DIEP flap surgery safe?
All surgery carries a risk, but we’re pleased to have a 99% success rate with our DIEP flap surgeries.
What body changes should I expect after the surgery?
You will probably experience swelling and soreness at first. This should disappear as healing progresses, although you will have scarring and possibly some uneven skin at the sites.
How soon can I drive after the surgery?
We recommend you don’t drive for six to eight weeks after surgery to give yourself the best chance to heal safely.
Contact Stephen McCulley for more information
Undergoing breast reconstruction surgery can be the final step in a long journey. So while the time after the procedure may be uncomfortable, see it as the last hurdle to cross.
If you have any questions or concerns about opting for the DIEP flap operation, speak with the Stephen McCulley team to explore your reconstruction options.