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Tissue Transfer for Skin Cancer

Massive skin cancers on the face are often disfiguring and leave patients with gaping wounds or deep holes. Now, doctors at Oregon Health & Science University //are using the person's own body to heal the area and improve their appearance.

Dorothy Fahland grew up sunbathing, first as a toddler and then as a teenager and young adult. Decades later, she had a skin cancer cut from above her eye, but the cancer grew back -- this time as a tumor behind her eye.

"I was told right from the beginning that I would lose my eye," Fahland says. "I'm not self-conscious about it." Now, she swims to strengthen her abdomen -- that's where doctors took muscle and blood vessel to fill the cavity left after they removed the tumor and her eye.

Otolaryngologist Mark K. Wax, M.D., of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, says. "We detach the blood vessel in the groin, and we take the muscle and the blood vessel, and we bring it up to the eye."

Dr. Wax and colleagues used the free-tissue transfer technique on 43 patients. After two years, 58 percent were cancer-free. "Instead of having a big wad of tissue there you have something that at least molds in and looks more acceptable, and fulfills those functions of letting people breathe through their nose, or even drink and get food down," he says.

Fahland says, "I thought it was extraordinary, but in this day and age, modern medicine does wonders."

It's been over two years since Fahland had her surgery. She's adjusted to having only one eye, and she says it's a small price to pay for having her life.

The free-tissue transfer technique can be used to repair tumors on various parts of the face including the chin, cheek and nose. The procedure requires a team of surgeons -- usually a surgical oncologist, a neurosurgeon, a head and neck surgeon and, in some cases, a plastic surgeon. Dr. Wax says there are about 50 academic centers in the country doing this procedure.
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