Lighter Breast Prostheses Equal Comfort, Benefits

By Mimi San Pedro, CMF

Breast prosthesis weight is an issue that has evolved in recent years. The traditional school of thought was that women should wear weighted silicone prostheses that are similar in weight to the natural breast to give balance. New research findings and industry trends are showing that lightweight breast prostheses are shaking up the marketplace and the way people think about breast prosthesis weight.

It is in our blood as Americans to invent--to go beyond the standard to create newer and better options that improve our quality of life. Advances in technology often dictate new methods and trends that change public perception and purchasing decisions.

Take the home entertainment industry, for example. In 1972, Sony introduced the first home videocassette recorder in the United States. In 2001, it was estimated that close to 95 percent of US households had one. It was the industry standard until 1994, when companies began offering the DVD player. Consumers who thought they had the best possible option with the VCR quickly realized that a better alternative was available. Technological advances changed consumer behavior and perceptions.

Trendsetters: Dispelling Myths

This paradigm shift reminds me of some of the resistance I encountered when we began offering the first truly lightweight breast prosthesis. Dispelling common myths is something that trendsetters face on a daily basis. There were several naysayers, and we were up against a wall of doubt when we started commercially manufacturing the product. It wasn't easy, but the evolution is underway. In fact, more and more companies that had traditionally only carried weighted silicone breast forms are now offering lighter breast prosthetic products.

Medical Reasons for Lighter Weight

From a scientific standpoint, there are now several medically based factors that warrant a lightweight prosthesis.

The first is osteoporosis. It is important that women over 60 who have bone density disease wear a lightweight form to reduce the acceleration of osteoporosis.

"Some people who have osteoporosis feel that the heavy off-the-shelf prosthesis can increase or exacerbate their problem," said Jim Hagans, MD, a breast oncologist with Baptist Health System in Little Rock, Arkansas. "A prosthesis that is light in weight can alleviate some of these problems and definitely not allow them to propagate."

Patients with lymphedema should also consider a lightweight prosthesis. It is estimated that approximately 35 percent of all post-mastectomy patients are diagnosed with lymphedema. On its website, www.lymphnet.org, the National Lymphedema Association strongly recommends that large-breasted women wear a lightweight form "because heavy prostheses may put too much pressure on the lymph nodes above the collar bone."

Some of the standard silicone products available for women with larger breasts can weigh more than five pounds. Ronda S. Henry-Tillman, MD, with the Arkansas Cancer Research Center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock, said that a lightweight form could reduce strain on spinal muscles and enhance the posture of its wearers.

Comfort: A Compelling Reason

In addition to the medical benefits, the comfort issue for post-mastectomy patients--regardless of the presence of medical complications--is the most telling truth for the benefits of a lightweight breast prosthesis.

Elizabeth McCann of Houston, Texas, a bilateral mastectomy patient who wore weighted silicone prostheses for more than a decade, said the weight was unbearable.

"The humid Houston summers can be pretty tough--especially when you have several pounds of silicone up next to you," McCann said. "I would wear them to go out in public, but as soon as I got home, they were the first things to come off. I was miserable from the strain on my back. They were so heavy--it felt like someone was pushing my shoulders down all the time."

McCann said her lightweight forms, which are less than half the weight of the ones she was wearing before, alleviate strain on her back. "I don't have as much pressure on my spine and I keep them on all day long now," she continued.

An added benefit of some lightweight breast forms is providing more options for patients. "Heavier products that require a special bra can be very uncomfortable for women with scar tissue on their chest wall. It's almost like wearing a pair of shoes that are too tight," said Larita Irvin of Texarkana, Texas. "I can now wear any bra I choose."

As Elizabeth McCann mentioned, the sheer weight of a standard silicone prosthesis can make the chest wall hot and increase perspiration.

"The prosthesis I was wearing was extremely heavy, hot and made me sweat," said Wanda Rouse of Abingdon, Virginia. "When I put my new custom lightweight prosthesis, I couldn't believe the difference it made--it absorbs moisture and gives me symmetry."

O&P: Lighter-Weight Trend

As I look at trends in the O&P industry as a whole, today's prosthetic devices are getting lighter and lighter--which is apparently what customers want. I have to question the reasoning of those who still say that mastectomy patients need the weight of a prosthesis to match their natural breast. Do these individuals think that a prosthetic limb should weigh as much as an existing leg? I think amputee patients would convince them otherwise.

Many O&P providers are beginning to understand the benefits of lightweight breast prostheses and use this research as they counsel customers in their decision-making process.

Thanks to emerging technologies and new materials available for post-mastectomy patients, I believe that lightweight breast forms will one day emerge as the industry standard.

Mimi San Pedro, CMF, is president of ContourMed, Little Rock, Arkansas. A four-year breast cancer survivor, San Pedro left behind an 18-year career as an advertising executive to make a fresh start on a career that was both challenging and personally rewarding. In 2003, the national Susan G. Komen Foundation, SELF Magazine, and Yoplait selected her as one of the "Yoplait 25 Champions."