Surgeon: Hidden scar surgery offers new hope to RI breast-cancer patients

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A major medical advancement that was once available to only a limited number of patients is now an option for nearly all surgical breast cancer patients in Rhode Island.

It’s a new hidden scar surgery technique that uses an illuminated retractor. The additional light provides a brighter, clearer pathway to the tumor – improving the surgeon’s visibility during a lumpectomy and nipple sparing mastectomy.

Dr. Jennifer Gass – co-director of the Breast Health Center at Women & Infants Hospital – is the first surgeon in the state certified to use the new technique.

“Using this technique of surgery, we place our incisions at something we call the inframammary fold, or where your bra usually sits and because that is hidden women can have that surgery and then look at themselves in the mirror and never see their scar,” Gass said.

The concept of hidden scar surgery has been around for some time, but Gass said this new technology allows them to perform the surgery on just about any patient.

“My favorite visit with patients is when they come in and say, ‘Dr. Gass, I just had my mammogram and the radiology tech couldn’t find my scar,'” Gass said.

Gass was able to use the new technique on one of her patients who’s also her co-worker, Heather Cagno.

Heather Cagno found a lump in her breast in June. Her doctors weren’t sure if it was cancerous, but with her family history of breast cancer, her mind was made up, she wanted the tumor removed immediately.

“When I woke up I knew I was going to have a scar and I knew my scar was going to be a little bit larger,” Cagno said. An operating room nurse for years, she was all too prepared for the physical reminder she’d seen on so many of her own patients.

But Dr. Gass had a different outcome in mind. Once in the operating room, she was able to place the scar right near Heather’s armpit.

“When patients come in and I start talking about placement of the scar or where the scar’s going to be – patients are often thinking ‘I’m not really worried about this, I just want to survive this breast cancer,'” Gass said. “But as the breast cancer surgeon my job is to be looking down the road for them.”

Eventually Cagno’s scar will be virtually invisible. “I didn’t think as heavily about it before hand. I was just like it is what it is, and to wake up that way, I was just thrilled. I was! I was thrilled,” she said.

Cagno got even more good news after surgery – her tumor was benign.

Gass said that she learned just how important appearance is to recovering patients after Women & Infants surveyed breast cancer survivors.

“What we learned in our survey when it came to feeling comfortable in front of your partner undressed how a woman felt looking at herself undressed was the most influential factor,” Gass said. “These scars carry with a woman for the rest of her life so the best we can do to make that scar feel invisible to her can be very powerful.”

This is a huge step forward, Gass said, from the days when a hidden scar was considered something under the patient’s clothing.

Dr. Gass is one of two surgeons at Women & Infants who can perform this new hidden scar surgery. Dr. David Edmonson is also certified in the technique.

Several more surgeons at Women & Infants and Kent Hospital are pursuing certification for the new breast-cancer technique right now, according to Amy Blustein, a spokeswoman for Care New England, the hospitals’ parent company.

For more information on breast health or surgery with the Hidden Scar technology, go to their website or call Women & Infants’ Breast Health Center at (401) 453-7540.