The "free flap" surgical procedure is a method of facial reconstruction for patients following treatment for head and neck cancer. The surgeon reconstructs missing parts of the face by transplanting tissue from another part of the patient's body to the face. The goal is to return the patient, as much as possible, to their pre-cancer level of appearance and function. Dedicated facial plastic - reconstructive surgeons can transfer bone, skin, or muscle to repair almost any defect of the face. The result is aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.
Some examples of what surgeons can do during free flap procedures:
- Take a straight bone from the leg and reshape it into a new jaw, for patients who lost their jaw during cancer treatments. Working together with the dental team, implants are then placed in the new jaw bone and teeth can be restored.
- Bones from the leg or cranium can be used to rebuild the cheek bones, eye socket, and palate, if these areas had to be removed due to the cancer.
- Making a new tongue and swallowing tube for patients with tongue and throat cancer.
- Through microsurgery techniques, surgeons can restore facial symmetry in patients with facial paralysis. They do this by repairing damaged facial nerves or using implants or bands of tissue to align facial structures. (The transfers may be done in a single surgery, though some patients may need a follow-up procedure.)
Looking toward the future, facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons at Johns Hopkins may be able to offer facial transplants from donors to select patients.