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In Rare Move, Surgeons Use Love Handles For Cancer Survivor's Breast Reconstruction Surgery

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - There's a different kind of progress against cancer, improving the appearance of cancer survivors.

In this case, an extremely rare type of natural breast reconstruction after cancer. CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez says it is where the tissue came from that makes it so rare.

Women have two main options for breast reconstruction. The most common choice is an implant, but for women who want to use their own tissue for reconstruction, surgeons usually take fat and skin from the belly area.

But what if a woman doesn't have enough of that tissue?

"I'm the first in my family with breast cancer," said survivor Stacey Dunn. It was a big surprise when she found out that, at age 46, she not only had breast cancer, she had the BRCA cancer gene mutation.

That's what led Stacey to choose a double mastectomy to dramatically reduce her breast cancer risk. Her mastectomy removed all her breast tissue, leaving her with skin for a reconstruction.

Stacey didn't want an implant.

"I kept hearing of women having chronic illnesses with implants, and I didn't want something in my body that could make me sick after cancer. I just wasn't doing it," she said.

The other option was using Stacey's own tissue from her belly area, but Stacey was too thin. So Dr. Neil Tanna and Dr. Mark Smith turned to an area most women and men are happy to lose: Love handles. They took fat and skin from both flanks to transfer up to the chest. The real challenge was keeping the tissue alive.

"It took 11 hours with both surgeons working the whole time. We had to find blood vessels from the chest to make the connections and sew them together," Dr. Tann said.

Those blood vessel connections required microsurgical suturing because the vessels were as small as one millimeter: Thinner than a pencil lead.

Even though this operation is a bigger surgical risk, it also has advantages.

"You don't have to replace them like you do with implants, and they feel more natural," Dr. Smith said.

The safety of breast implants has been studied extensively and any link to autoimmune diseases and other health risks have been largely disproved.

There have been cases of a very rare type of lymphoma with a specific type of implant that has since been taken off the market.

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