Mechanical engineering professor hopes study will lead to improved life for breast cancer survivors

Nov. 10, 2003

AUSTIN, Texas—Most women with localized breast cancer will survive. Improving life’s quality for survivors motivated Dr. Tess Moon, a mechanical engineering professor at The University of Texas at Austin, to direct a study of the biomechanical properties of healthy female breasts. She hopes her work leads to more natural-looking reconstructed breasts after a mastectomy.

“Most doctors see this as a secondary issue, where the main issue is getting at the disease,” says Moon. “But several studies have demonstrated that at least acceptable reconstruction helps women emotionally and psychologically deal with and eventually thrive in spite of their disease. I also hypothesize that as breast reconstruction becomes more aesthetically acceptable, women will be less reluctant to seek treatment.”

For women like Moon’s mother, who has survived three bouts of cancer and a unilateral mastectomy over the last 40 years, a healthy reconstruction of her former self would have eased some of the emotional trauma of living with the ongoing threat of the disease.

“I don’t even think reconstruction was an option for her,” says Moon. “I believe my mother, like many women of modest means, didn’t dare to expect or hope for more than to live. They just seemed to resign themselves to lifelong ‘disfigurement.’”

Reconstruction was considered elective surgery, making it too expensive for most women. Now, she says, federally mandated insurance coverage has made post-mastectomy breast reconstruction an affordable option for those women whose insurance includes treatment of their breast cancer.

Moon also hopes her study will provide an accurate portrayal of the reconstruction options available to breast cancer patients. Mastectomy patients often have unrealistic expectations of the look and feel of their reconstructed breasts. When patients are unhappy with their surgery, they return for additional surgeries, leading to higher costs for both patients and insurance companies.

Moon’s project, performed in conjunction with researchers at U.T. M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, will study the mechanical properties of the breasts of 50 healthy female volunteers between 18 and 65 years old. Skin from the upper abdomen, frequently used in breast reconstruction, will be included in the study as well.

Each volunteer’s breasts will be divided into 24 segments, and skin elasticity, thickness and other tissue elements will be recorded. From these measurements, researchers will develop computer models of the breast and upper abdomen by combining information such as ethnicity, age and menopausal status. Moon expects the project to begin Nov. 1 and last about a year.

“Detection and treatment of the disease is clearly first priority for most people, because it’s essential. However, as my mom is a tribute, there is life after breast cancer. Reconstruction appropriately reminds women that their focus should be on living, not just getting by—or worse, preparing to die,” she says.

Prospective volunteers can e-mail REALSurvivors@www.me.utexas.edu for more information. More information is also on the REAL Survivors Web site.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272.