Being Able to Inflate My Own Tissue Expander Was a Positive Experience
- 8 Min. Read
Breast reconstruction using implants requires placement of a temporary implant, called a tissue expander, which slowly stretches the skin in the chest area until it’s large enough to fit permanent implants. Most tissue expanders must have a salt solution injected in them by a medical professional every few weeks for several months. But Katie Madden, 62, from Fairbanks, Alaska, got a new type of expander that she could inflate herself, called the AeroForm Tissue Expander System, made by AirXpanders.
AirXpanders is one of the sponsors of LBBC’s upcoming Twitter Chat, Straight Talk: Breast Reconstruction Recovery. Ready Katie’s story and join us on Wednesday, Oct. 18, to learn more about this important topic.
In January of 2017 I went in for a routine mammogram. It showed a suspicious area. A biopsy confirmed I had breast cancer. A couple of days later I had a breast MRI, which showed two additional lesions. I had three tumors and they were in both breasts. After 4 months of intensive chemotherapy, I was now facing a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. There were lots of decisions to be made.
My family and I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. We own a second home in Tucson, Arizona, which is where I went for all my treatment. Breast reconstruction would be done in Tucson as there is no plastic surgeon in Fairbanks.
When a woman chooses to have breast reconstruction done, there are several steps. An expander is placed under the pectoral muscle either at the time of the mastectomy surgery or at a later date. This expander is used to stretch the muscle and the skin so that it can accommodate the final implant. The expander needs to be injected with a saline solution weekly via a needle inserted into a port on the expander. The doctor usually injects 50 cubic centimeters (cc), about one-quarter cup, of saline at a time. Some women find this to be a very painful process to go through every week. After the desired size of the implant is achieved, a woman must wait 6 to 8 weeks for the final surgery.
Since I live in Alaska, I really wanted to be home with my family and found the thought of flying back and forth to Arizona time-consuming and cost prohibitive. My plastic surgeon in Tucson had just attended a class in Utah where he was introduced to the AeroForm Tissue Expander System, made by AirXpander.
AirXpanders received permission from the FDA to market AeroForm expanders in the United States in December 2016. They have been used in Australia since 2014. When my plastic surgeon realized I was going back to Alaska, he suggested trying this expander system on me.
The AeroForm expander gives a woman complete control over her expansion. The expander has a CO2 cartridge in it, similar to a cartridge used to inflate a bicycle tire. The patient simply holds a controller over the breast area and pushes a button. The device delivers 10cc of CO2 into the expander. This is a very controlled way of accomplishing the expansion. If a woman is experiencing too much pain, she may hold off for a few days. If she wants to inflate faster, the device will deliver 10cc up to three times a day. It was a fantastic way to give me control over my expansion and pain control at a time when I had lost control of my life due to cancer.
In late June, I became the first person in Arizona to receive this type of expander.
Being a nurse, I was hesitant about being the first person my surgeon had done this on. He assured me it was no different than placing any expander, that the only difference was the inflation method.
After an uncomplicated surgery, I returned home to Alaska and inflated my expanders nearly daily for over 20 days. Occasionally I would skip a day if I felt too much tightness or any pain, to give my chest time to stretch. The beauty was I could inflate anywhere I went. I inflated while traveling in Montana. I inflated while out on my boat in Alaska on a several-days-long trip. This process really fit into my lifestyle and allowed me to be home in Alaska.
While the AirXpanders system was more expensive than traditional expanders, my insurance covered the expense. The convenience is nice, but also crucially important for women faced with significant travel distances to see their plastic surgeon.
When I got to the breast size I wanted, I stopped inflating. The device does recommend that once you are at the desired size, you inflate once a month to maintain that size.
Since I was flying home to Alaska, my doctor warned me that I may feel extra tightness when flying due to increased air pressure. I did feel a little tightness when flying, but nothing different from general expanding. I also received a card that allowed me to avoid going through the metal detectors at the airport, but had no problems with that.
A few weeks ago, I had my expanders removed and my final implants placed. I am so happy with my entire surgical experience. The AeroForm expanders allowed me to get back to life as I know it.
You can find more LBBC coverage of the AeroForm system here.