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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — For many breast cancer patients, treatment and recovery sometimes includes breast reconstruction surgery. But that comes with risks, including loss of feeling.

Now, local doctors are among just a few nationwide using a new technique to prevent that from happening.

“It was devastating losing a breast,” says Renee Tate.

Because of cancer, she had breast reconstruction.

In her case, though, doctors tried a new technique. The idea is to reduce the chance of arm swelling, a known complication with limited treatments, and to maintain sensation.

“He was moving tissue from my abdomen and making a breast,” she said. “I thought that was awesome.”

Typical reconstruction involves a tissue expander followed by a permanent implant. Because of radiation treatments, Tate couldn’t have that.

So she had the new technique. The surgeon uses belly fat transferred to the chest with its blood vessels attached. These are reconnected surgically in the chest with miniature instruments and a microscope. Also lymph nodes from the belly or groin are transferred as well and reconnected for proper fluid drainage. And skin is rotated with nerves intact. These are also reconnected in the chest to maintain feeling. Some of these structures are extremely small, only a few millimeters wide.

“So over the course of nine to 12 months, she will start having improvement in her lymphedema, but also in sensation,” says Dr. Daniel Murariu, an Allegheny Health Network plastic surgeon.

Two out of three patients see some improvement.

“Not everybody has full sensation, and the degree of sensation differs person to person,” he said.

Tate had her surgery a month ago, and is already getting some feeling back.

“There was a couple stitches that were in my breast that were sticking out, and he cut that, so I can feel that,” she says.

These new techniques have been developed over the past decade, and they’re only available in a handful of centers across the country. Dr. Murariu says insurance is covering the surgery, which is performed by plastic surgeons.

“It federally mandates that insurance provides coverage for breast reconstruction,” he says.

Tate has had some changes in her insurance, which worries her.

“I don’t want to lose him as my surgeon,” she said.

Tate was the first patient in the Pittsburgh area to have all three components: belly tissue, a lymph node transfer and the nerve reconnection.

“I feel privileged. It was 16-hour surgery. But that was awesome that he can do all of that. I couldn’t have asked for anything more,” she said.

Dr. Maria Simbra