After-breast cancer prosthetics: Patients design own 3D chest

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One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Some may lose one or both breasts to the disease.

But now, a high-tech process provides some breast cancer patients with additional options.

Shopping for bras used to be a challenge for Helen Battaglia Commodori, but that’s nothing compared to fighting breast cancer – not once but twice – first, in 1986 at age 35.

“Ten years to that month in June 1996 it recurred in that same breast," Helen said. "Stage 2. At that point, I opted for double mastectomy with reconstruction.”

Infection after surgery meant the implants had to come out. Now, 20 years later, Helen is turning to new technology to redefine her shape. Soft stickers on Helen’s chest and torso are the first step in a three-dimensional scanning process.

Certified mastectomy fitter Elisa Lawson uses her tablet to record a precise image of Helen’s chest. Until recently, patients would have to undergo a molding process.

“When this process started 15 years ago, we came in with a bucket of water and plaster and literally wrapped mesh around patients,” Lawson said.

Now, it’s 15 minutes of digital imaging and several weeks of production time for a prosthesis that’s a perfect fit.

“The beauty of the custom breast form is that we’re recreating on the back of the form the image of the chest wall, so it fits like a puzzle,” Lawson said.

“They’re lightweight. They’re comfortable. You’d never know I didn’t have breasts,” Helen said.

The breast forms are covered by most private insurance companies. Lawson says the custom-designed prosthetic breasts are lightweight and can be worn in swimwear.

REPORT: MB #4537

BACKGROUND: Mastectomy is a way of treating breast cancer by removing the entire breast through surgery. It’s often done when a woman cannot be treated with breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy), which spares most of the breast. It can also be done if a woman chooses mastectomy over breast-conserving surgery for personal reasons. Women at very high risk of getting a second cancer sometimes have a double mastectomy, the removal of both breasts. If a mastectomy is done on both breasts, it is called a double (or bilateral) mastectomy. When this is done, it is often a risk-reducing surgery for women at very high risk for getting breast cancer, such as those with a BRCA gene mutation. Most of these mastectomies are simple mastectomies, but some may be nipple-sparing.

TRADITIONAL VERSION: If you decide that breast reconstruction isn’t right for you but still want a breast shape, a prosthesis, also called a breast form, can help you look balanced without surgery. Breast prostheses come in many shapes, sizes, and materials: silicone gel, foam, or fiberfill interior. Some prostheses are weighted and some are not. Elisa Lawson, a certified mastectomy fitter at Mercy Medical Center described the old process: “It was about twelve to fifteen years ago when the first custom was introduced. It was a two-hour long process wrapping women in plaster, trying to get an image of what the existing breast or what the breasts were going to look like afterwards. We would wrap and then we’d wait for that cast to dry, and then ship it off to the manufacturer and it would be hand carved according to that mold. It was something that was discouraging for some women because of the time element and physical limitations.”
(Source: Elisa Lawson &

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Lawson explained how the 3D version is better: “we’ll take an iPad and scan around her, moving from the right to the left side and creating a virtual body cast with the scanner.” Its not only faster and easier but Lawson says,“Women are going to be able to choose skin tones that match their tones better, they’re going to be able to choose nipple diameters, they can project the nipples, they can flatten nipples; we can give it characteristics that you can’t do in a traditional form. And for some women that kind of fills that void of not being able to have a breast.”
(Source: Elisa Lawson)