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Gender-affirming mastectomy boosts image and quality of life in gender-diverse youth



Adolescents and young adults who undergo “top surgery” for gender dysphoria overwhelmingly report being satisfied with the procedure in the near-term, new research shows.

The results of the prospective cohort study, reported recently in JAMA Pediatrics, suggest that the surgery can help facilitate gender congruence and comfort with body image for transmasculine and nonbinary youth. The authors, from Northwestern University, Chicago, said the findings may “help dispel misconceptions that gender-affirming treatment is experimental and support evidence-based practices of top surgery.”

Dr. Sumanas Jordan is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at Northwestern University, Chicago

Dr. Sumanas Jordan

Sumanas Jordan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of plastic surgery at Northwestern University, Chicago, and a coauthor of the study, said the study was the first prospective, matched cohort analysis showing that chest surgery improves outcomes in this age group.

“We focused our study on chest dysphoria, the distress due to the presence of breasts, and gender congruence, the feeling of alignment between identity and physical characteristics,” Dr. Jordan said. “We will continue to study the effect of surgery in other areas of health, such as physical functioning and quality of life, and follow our patients longer term.”

As many as 9% of adolescents and young adults identify as transgender or nonbinary - a group underrepresented in the pediatric literature, Dr. Jordan’s group said. Chest dysphoria often is associated with psychosocial issues such as depression and anxiety.

“Dysphoria can lead to a range of negative physical and emotional consequences, such as avoidance of exercise and sports, harmful chest-binding practices, functional limitations, and suicidal ideation, said M. Brett Cooper, MD, MEd, assistant professor of pediatrics, and adolescent and young adult medicine, at UT Southwestern Medical Center/Children’s Health, Dallas. “These young people often bind for several hours a day to reduce the presence of their chest.”

Dr. M. Brett Cooper, assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern Medical Center and an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas

Dr. M. Brett Cooper

The study

The Northwestern team recruited 81 patients with a mean age of 18.6 years whose sex at birth was assigned female. Patients were overwhelmingly White (89%), and the majority (59%) were transgender male, the remaining patients nonbinary.

The population sample included patients aged 13-24 who underwent top surgery from December 2019 to April 2021 and a matched control group of those who did not have surgery.

Outcomes measures were assessed preoperatively and 3 months after surgery.

Thirty-six surgical patients and 34 of those in the control arm completed the outcomes measures. Surgical complications were minimal. Propensity analyses suggested an association between surgery and substantial improvements in scores on the following study endpoints:

  • Chest dysphoria measure (–25.58 points, 95% confidence interval [CI], –29.18 to –21.98).
  • Transgender congruence scale (7.78 points, 95%: CI, 6.06-9.50)
  • Body image scale (–7.20 points, 95% CI, –11.68 to –2.72).

The patients who underwent top surgery reported significant improvements in scores of chest dysphoria, transgender congruence, and body image. The results for patients younger than age 18 paralleled those for older participants in the study.

While the results corroborate other studies showing that gender-affirming therapy improves mental health and quality of life among these young people, the researchers cautioned that some insurers require testosterone therapy for 1 year before their plans will cover the costs of gender-affirming surgery.

This may negatively affect those nonbinary patients who do not undergo hormone therapy,” the researchers wrote. They are currently collecting 1-year follow-up data to determine the long-term effects of top surgery on chest dysphoria, gender congruence, and body image.

As surgical patients progress through adult life, does the risk of regret increase? “We did not address regret in this short-term study,” Dr. Jordan said. “However, previous studies have shown very low levels of regret.”

An accompanying editorial concurred that top surgery is effective and medically necessary in this population of young people.

Calling the study “an important milestone in gender affirmation research,” Kishan M. Thadikonda, MD, and Katherine M. Gast, MD, MS, of the school of medicine and public health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said it will be important to follow this young cohort to prove these benefits will endure as patients age.

They cautioned, however, that nonbinary patients represented just 13% of the patient total and only 8% of the surgical cohort. Nonbinary patients are not well understood as a patient population when it comes to gender-affirmation surgery and are often included in studies with transgender patients despite clear differences, they noted.


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