A surgeon's personal connection to breast reconstruction

Dr. Rola Eid

Eight-year-old Rola Eid was an eyewitness to the effects of breast cancer. She watched her mother’s reverse metamorphosis — from social butterfly to a cocoon of sadness — after her mastectomy in the early 1980s. "Thirty years ago, there were no support groups. No pink ribbons," Eid says.

As a teenager, Eid figured out her mother’s unhappiness was linked to her breast deformity, so she researched breast reconstruction — an option not previously discussed — and took her mother to a plastic and reconstructive specialist. She learned about the transformative and restorative properties of breast reconstruction surgery. And she got her mother back.

"I had wanted to be a doctor from an early age — my earliest memories," says now Dr. Rola Eid, who today is a plastic surgeon and the medical director of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa. "After my mother underwent breast reconstruction, I witnessed firsthand the restorative and transformative power of plastic surgery and, from that time forward, my course was set."

Today 95 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are living. And, thanks to new technologies, they don’t have to live with breast deformities. "Breasts are not an incidental feature, but an integral part of being a woman," Eid says. Her role as a surgeon, she explains, is to keep hope alive. To empower women with options.

Breast reconstruction dates to the 1800s with an attempt to transplant a lipoma (fatty tissue) to a mastectomy site, but recent decades have brought significant improvements. Eid highlights three main advancements: fat grafting, biologics and implants.

Implants, used for decades for women wanting larger breasts, also have been a traditional means of reconstruction. "Implants today are safer and hold up better," she says, explaining they’re made of a more cohesive gel than the silicone breast implants used since the late 1960s.

Although breast shapes can be surgically replicated, they lack nipples. Until recently, one solution was to tattoo the appropriate area with a brown pigment. Eid, however, now uses fat tissue to create a three-dimensional nipple. She mentions, almost as an aside, that fat cells contain more stem cells than bone marrow — although science is not yet ready to "grow" new breasts. Next, she artfully tattoos the areola, with variations in hues, to fully restore the feminine form.

Although surgically rebuilt breasts and nipples won’t have sensation, they can look and feel real. Eid encourages patients to ask about the nipple-sparing mastectomy. When doctors remove a breast, they can surgically save the nipple for the reconstructed breast; in effect, applying a cosmetic aesthetic technique to reconstructive surgery. "The cancer cells are removed," she says. "It’s a safe operation for the right person."

Patients also can take advantage of oncoplastic surgery, where tumor removal meets plastic surgery. It’s breast loss and replacement, done seamlessly. Instead of a series of surgeries, this is a one-step process, with breast surgeons and reconstructive surgeons sharing the operating room. For patients, that means one recovery period, all on an outpatient basis.

For patients who decide against implants, there are other encouraging options. By designing the mastectomy incision to be as subtle as possible and tattooing nipples later, Eid can leave patients with the appearance of a more natural flat chest instead of a disfiguring cross-chest scar. This procedure can work for men, too, whose breast surgery can result in a concave chest.

Eid’s résumé includes undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate degrees from Oklahoma universities. The Oklahoma City native completed a fellowship in plastic and reconstructive surgery at Oklahoma State University Medical Center, where she also served as chief resident and chief fellow. Her advanced training in plastic surgery, breast reconstruction and microsurgery comes from prestigious medical centers outside Oklahoma, including Mayo Clinic. In 2008, she trained at CTCA-Tulsa, and joined the staff in 2013. "I like the ethos, the personalized approach," she says.

Patients provide Eid with encouraging feedback. One woman, wearing a silk gown, says she caught her reflection in a mirror and cried with joy at her silhouette. Another patient thinks her body looks better after cancer than before.

The good news for current and former breast cancer patients is it’s never too late to have reconstructive surgery. "As long as someone is healthy enough to withstand surgery, there’s no age limit, no time limit," Eid says.

She has operated on women 80 and older. One patient who came in 17 years after her mastectomy told Eid, "I wish I’d known at the time" how much better she would feel about herself after breast reconstruction.

The doctor’s best advice for any patient newly diagnosed with breast cancer is, "Keep your appointment with the reconstructive surgeon.

"That’s where you get your options," she emphasizes. And options are empowering.

As for Eid’s mother? She’s a social butterfly again. "She calls all the time and sends me photos of shoes," says her proud daughter. 

 

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