Breast Cancer Surgery
What is breast cancer surgery?
If you have localized breast cancer, your healthcare team will almost always recommend surgery to remove it. Surgery is considered the primary treatment for breast cancer when it's technically possible to remove the affected tissue. (It's not an effective treatment for metastatic breast cancer — when the cancer has already spread to other parts of your body.)
Sometimes breast cancer surgery removes an individual tumor from your breast (lumpectomy), and other times it may be necessary to remove your entire breast (mastectomy) to remove the cancer. Breast surgery for cancer is primarily a treatment, but it can also be diagnostic and even cosmetic. Sometimes surgery is exploratory to look for signs of cancer spreading. Sometimes it involves reconstructing your breast after a mastectomy.
The type of surgery that your healthcare team recommends for you will depend on many individual factors, including the type of cancer you have, how advanced it is, your general health and your personal preferences. Depending on your condition, surgery may be only a piece of your overall treatment plan, or it may be the only treatment you need.
What are the different types of surgeries for breast cancer?
The two types of surgery used to treat breast cancer are mastectomy and lumpectomy. Additional surgeries for breast cancer may include lymph node dissection (lymphadenectomy) and breast reconstruction surgery.
Mastectomy, or breast removal surgery, is the most common surgery for breast cancer. That’s because mastectomy treats both late-stage and early-stage breast cancers. In addition, some people with a high risk of developing breast cancer in the future choose prophylactic mastectomy as a preventative measure.
Types of mastectomy procedures include:
- Total mastectomy: Removal of your entire breast, sparing your chest muscle beneath.
- Double mastectomy: Removal of both breasts. This may be necessary if the cancer has already spread to both breasts, or it may be a preventative measure.
- Skin-sparing or nipple-sparing mastectomy: Removal of all your breast tissue, but sparing your skin and, if possible, your nipple, to use to reconstruct your breast.
- Modified radical mastectomy: Removal of your breast tissue and your underarm lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are often the first place that breast cancer spreads to.
- Radical mastectomy: Removal of your breasts, underarm lymph nodes and chest muscles. This is a rare surgery, only necessary when breast cancer has infiltrated your chest muscles.
Lumpectomy, also called breast-conserving surgery, removes only part of your breast tissue. This is an alternative option for treating earlier-stage breast cancer. When the tumor is relatively small and hasn’t spread yet, you can have surgery just to remove the “lump” — the tumor itself. Lumpectomy also removes a margin of the surrounding tissue, just to make sure there aren’t any stray cancer cells left in your breast.
The benefit of lumpectomy is that it allows you to keep most of your breast. But to prevent breast cancer from returning, your healthcare provider will most likely recommend radiation therapy after the surgery. Having a total mastectomy instead is often a way of avoiding radiation therapy. But for people who have the option, lumpectomy with radiation therapy has been shown to be equally effective to total mastectomy in treating early-stage breast cancer.
Types of lumpectomy procedures include:
- Excisional biopsy: This is a procedure to remove a tumor for biopsy. Analyzing the tumor in a lab can help determine if the tumor is cancerous (malignant).
- Wide local excision: Surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and a margin of tissue around it. The marginal tissue will be tested afterward to make sure it’s cancer-free.
- Quadrantectomy: A segmental mastectomy that removes about a quarter of your breast, including your duct-lobular system. Recommended when the tumor shows ductal spread.
- Re-excision lumpectomy: A procedure that follows the original excision of the tumor and the margin of tissue around it. When the marginal tissue tests positive for cancer cells, your surgeon will reopen the surgical site to remove an additional margin of tissue until the tissue comes back cancer-free.
Lymph node dissection
Your lymph system is often the first place cancer spreads, and cancer in your lymph nodes is a warning sign that it may be spreading beyond your breast. To find out, your surgeon may remove and analyze one or several of the lymph nodes under your arm next to your affected breast. This is where breast cancer cells would be most likely to drain.
Lymph node procedures include:
- Sentinel lymph node biopsy: This is an investigative procedure to find out if cancer has spread to your lymph system. The sentinel lymph node is a good indicator because it's the first node that filters fluid draining away from the affected breast. Your surgeon will often perform a sentinel node biopsy during the operation to remove the original tumor from your breast — and sometimes before. They'll remove the sentinel node and analyze it for cancer cells.
- Axillary lymph node dissection: If the sentinel node biopsy tests positive for cancer, or if your surgeon has other reason to believe you have pervasive cancer in your lymph nodes, they may want to remove a larger portion of lymph nodes to analyze. In an axillary lymph node dissection, your surgeon removes a pad of fatty tissue containing a group of axillary lymph nodes (the lymph nodes under your arm). They'll carefully search through the tissue for signs of cancer.
Reconstructive breast surgery
If you're having some or all of your breast or breasts removed to treat breast cancer, you may be interested in reconstructive surgery to restore your breast shape. Surgeons can often rebuild the breast with plastic surgery techniques immediately following your lumpectomy or mastectomy. They can also perform a separate surgery at a later time, such as after you've finished radiation therapy or chemotherapy treatment and your tissues have had time to recover.
Regardless of whether you have immediate or delayed reconstruction surgery, you may need an additional follow-up surgery to perfect your results. Follow-up surgeries may adjust the size balance between your breasts, for example, or add a reconstructed nipple. Breast reconstruction can use a mix of different methods and can happen in stages. You and your surgeon will determine the right methods and timing based on your condition and preferences.
Breast reconstruction methods include:
- Implant reconstruction: A breast implant replaces the tissue that was removed from your breast to restore its shape and volume. The implant is a silicone shell that’s filled with either saline or silicone gel. The surgeon places it over or under your muscle and covers it with your skin — either your original breast skin or a skin graft from another part of your body.
- Autologous or “flap” reconstruction: This method takes tissue from another part of your body to reconstruct your breast. Skin, fat and sometimes muscle from areas such as your belly or buttocks tend to better resemble breast tissue in look and feel. Sometimes surgeons use a combination of flap and implant reconstruction for more realistic results.
- Nipple reconstruction: If you had a nipple-sparing mastectomy or lumpectomy, your surgeon preserved your nipple to use in the reconstruction of your breast. If they weren’t able to preserve your original nipple, they can construct a new one from a skin graft taken from another part of your body. This may be done in a follow-up surgery after breast reconstruction.
What happens before breast cancer surgery?
You'll consult with your healthcare team to decide the types of surgery best for you. Your health condition will determine your treatment options, and your personal preferences will help shape them. If you're interested in breast reconstruction during or after breast cancer surgery, you'll want to discuss these options in advance. Your overall cancer treatment plan may affect the timing and methods that'll work best for you.
What happens during breast cancer surgery?
Your breast cancer surgery will be tailored to your individual needs based on your discussions with your healthcare team. It may involve removing a portion of your breast, all of your breast or both of them. It may include a sentinel lymph node biopsy (if you haven’t had one already) or removal of several or all of your underarm (axillary) lymph nodes if cancer has already been found there.
If you’ve opted for breast reconstruction, your surgeon may begin or complete your reconstruction during the same surgery. This may involve additional wounds to your body — for example, if your surgeon needs to take tissue from another place on your body to reconstruct your breast. Alternatively, you may choose to delay breast reconstruction until after you’ve completed your cancer treatment.
How long is the surgery for breast cancer?
This will depend on how extensive it is. In general, a simple lumpectomy with or without sentinel node biopsy can usually be done in an hour. You can usually go home the same day. On the other hand, a mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection or a flap reconstruction at the same time may take up to three hours in surgery. You may have to stay in the hospital for one or more nights afterward. Some people are candidates for having a mastectomy and going home the same day, depending on your general health and the extent of surgery.
Risks / Benefits
What are the advantages of breast cancer surgery?
The main purpose of breast cancer surgery is to remove the cancer, which is life-threatening if left untreated. The risks of breast cancer far outweigh the risks associated with the surgery.
What are the risks or complications of breast cancer surgery?
Possible complications include:
- Wound infection: Notice any telltale symptoms such as redness, heat or swelling at the site.
- Blood clots: Call your healthcare provider if you have a painfully swollen leg, chest pain or shortness of breath.
- Seroma: This is a build-up of fluid at the surgical site. It usually goes away on its own, but you can have the fluid drawn with a needle if it bothers you.
- Lymphedema: Disruption of the lymph drainage system can sometimes cause swelling in your arm or hand. Let your healthcare provider know if this occurs.
- Nerve damage: Nerve damage during surgery may cause numbness, tingling or pain in your chest, armpit, upper arm or shoulder. The nerves usually repair themselves, but it may take several weeks. Your healthcare provider can give you medication for the pain.
- Hematoma: This is when blood collects in the tissues around the wound, causing pain and swelling. It goes away on its own, but it can take several months. You can have the swelling drained if you need to.
Recovery and Outlook
How long is the recovery from breast cancer surgery?
You may be sore and have limited movement in your chest and arms for a few weeks afterward. You’ll have painkillers to take home with you. You’ll also be given arm and shoulder exercises to practice daily. These are important to prevent stiffness. You may feel tired for a while. It can take several weeks to regain your former energy levels. You may need someone to help you around the house. Most people are able to resume their normal activities within about a month.
What happens after breast cancer surgery?
While you’re recovering from your surgery, your healthcare team will likely be working on lymph node biopsy results. They’ll want to make sure they’ve removed all of the cancer cells in your body. When they have their results, they’ll discuss these and your next steps with you. You might need additional follow-up surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy as part of your treatment plan. If you’ve completed your cancer treatment, you may now be ready to begin or complete your breast reconstruction.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I see my healthcare provider?
Your healthcare team will schedule a follow-up appointment about one to two weeks after your surgery. During your appointment, they’ll assess your condition, fill you in on any test results and plan the next steps in your treatment plan. Be sure to see your healthcare provider sooner if you experience any strange symptoms or complications following your surgery.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
For almost all types and stages of breast cancer, surgery will be an essential part of your treatment plan. There are several types of operations involved in breast cancer treatment, and most people will have more than one. Whether it’s to remove a tumor, to check for remaining cancer cells or to reconstruct your breast after removal, you and your surgeon will work closely together in the course of your treatment. You’ll discuss your personal options and preferences at length to devise the best strategy for beating breast cancer with surgery.
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