You are here: Home Managing Your ... Breast Cancer Surgery For ... Summary
Information about all aspects of finances affected by a serious health condition. Includes income sources such as work, investments, and private and government disability programs, and expenses such as medical bills, and how to deal with financial problems.
Information about all aspects of health care from choosing a doctor and treatment, staying safe in a hospital, to end of life care. Includes how to obtain, choose and maximize health insurance policies.
Answers to your practical questions such as how to travel safely despite your health condition, how to avoid getting infected by a pet, and what to say or not say to an insurance company.


Most women with breast cancer have some type of surgery to remove the tumor in the breast.

There are two types of surgery in general use with respect to the breast:

  • Breast-conserving surgery which, as the name implies, preserves the breast.
  • Mastectomy which removes the breast. If there is a mastectomy, the breast can be reconstructed. Breast reconstruction can be done at the same time as the mastectomy or it can be performed later on.

Surgery is also used to check the lymph nodes under the arm for cancer spread. The two options for this type of surgery are:

  • Sentinel lymph node biopsy 
  • Axillary (armpit) lymph node dissection

For additional information, see: 


What To Expect With Surgery

For many, the thought of surgery can be frightening. But with a better understanding of what to expect before, during, and after the operation, many fears can be relieved.

Before surgery: The common biopsy procedures let you find out if you have breast cancer within a few days of your biopsy, but the extent of the breast cancer will not be known until after imaging tests and the surgery for local treatment are done.

Usually, you meet with your surgeon a few days before the operation to discuss the procedure. This is a good time to ask specific questions about the surgery and review potential risks. Be sure you understand what the extent of the surgery is likely to be and what you should expect afterward. If you are thinking about breast reconstruction, ask about this as well. (NOTE From Survivorship A to Z: Reconstruction can be performed at the same time as the surgery.)

You will be asked to sign a consent form, giving the doctor permission to perform the surgery. Take your time and review the form carefully to be certain that you understand what you are signing. Sometimes, doctors send material for you to review in advance of your appointment, so you will have plenty of time to read it and won't feel rushed. You may also be asked to give consent for researchers to use any tissue or blood that is not needed for diagnostic purposes. Although this may not be of direct use to you, it may be very helpful to women in the future.

You may be asked to donate blood before some operations, such as a mastectomy combined with natural tissue reconstruction, if the doctors think a transfusion might be needed. You might feel more secure knowing that if a transfusion is needed, you will receive your own blood. If you do not receive your own blood, it is important to know that in the United States, blood transfusion from another person is nearly as safe as receiving your own blood. Ask your doctor about your possible need for a blood transfusion.

Your doctor will review your medical records and ask you about any medicines you are taking. This is to be sure that you are not taking anything that might interfere with the surgery. For example, if you are taking aspirin, arthritis medicine, or a blood-thinning drug (like coumadin), you may be asked to stop taking the drug about a week or 2 before the surgery. Be sure you tell your doctor about everything you take, including vitamins and herbal supplements. Usually, you will be told not to eat or drink anything for 8 to 12 hours before the surgery, especially if you are going to have general anesthesia (will be asleep during surgery).

You will also meet with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist, the health professional who will be giving you the anesthesia during your surgery. The type of anesthesia used depends largely on the kind of surgery being done and your medical history.

Surgery: Depending on the likely extent of your surgery, you may be offered the choice of an outpatient procedure (where you go home the same day) or you may be admitted to the hospital.

General anesthesia is usually given whenever the surgery involves a mastectomy or an axillary node dissection, and is most often used during breast-conserving surgery as well. You will have an IV (intravenous) line put in (usually in a vein in your arm), which the medical team will use to give medicines that may be needed during the surgery. Usually you will be hooked up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine and have a blood pressure cuff on your arm, so your heart rhythm and blood pressure can be checked during the surgery.

The length of the operation depends on the type of surgery being done. For example, a mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection will usually take from 2 to 3 hours. After your surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room, where you will stay until you are awake and your condition and vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, and breathing) are stable.

After surgery: How long you stay in the hospital depends on the type of surgery being done, your overall state of health and whether you have any other medical problems, how well you do during the surgery, and how you feel after the surgery. Decisions about the length of your stay should be made by you and your doctor and not dictated by what your insurance will pay, but it is important to check your insurance coverage before surgery.

In general, women having a mastectomy and/or axillary lymph node dissection stay in the hospital for 1 or 2 nights and then go home. However, some women may be placed in a 23-hour, short-stay observation unit before going home.

Less involved operations such as lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy are usually done in an outpatient surgery center, and an overnight stay in the hospital is usually not needed.

You may have a dressing (bandage) over the surgery site that may wrap snugly around your chest. You may have one or more drains (plastic or rubber tubes) coming out from the breast or underarm area to remove blood and lymph fluid that collects during the healing process. Your health care team will teach you how to care for the drains, which may include emptying and measuring the fluid and identifying problems the doctor or nurse needs to know about. Most drains stay in place for 1 or 2 weeks. When drainage has decreased to about 30 cc (1 fluid ounce) each day, the drain will usually be removed.

Most doctors will want you to start moving your arm soon after surgery so that it won't get stiff.

Many women who have a lumpectomy or mastectomy are often surprised by how little pain they have in the breast area. But they are less happy with the strange sensations (numbness, pinching/pulling feeling) they may feel in the underarm area.

Ask your health care team how to care for your surgery site and arm. Usually, they will give you and your caregivers written instructions about care after surgery. These instructions should include:

  • the care of the surgical wound and dressing
  • how to monitor drainage and take care of the drains
  • how to recognize signs of infection
  • when to call the doctor or nurse
  • when to begin using the arm and how to do arm exercises to prevent stiffness
  • when to resume wearing a bra
  • when to begin using a prosthesis and what type to use (after mastectomy)
  • what to eat and not to eat
  • use of medications, including pain medicines and possibly antibiotics
  • any restrictions of activity
  • what to expect regarding sensations or numbness in the breast and arm
  • what to expect regarding feelings about body image
  • when to see your doctor for a follow-up appointment
  • referral to a Reach to Recovery volunteer. Through our Reach to Recovery program, a specially trained volunteer who has had breast cancer can provide information, comfort, and support (see the American Cancer Society document, Reach to Recovery offsite link for more information).

Most patients see their doctor about 7 to 14 days after the surgery. Your doctor should explain the results of your pathology report and talk to you about the need for further treatment. If you will need more treatment, you may be referred to a radiation oncologist and/or a medical oncologist. If you are thinking about breast reconstruction, you may be referred to a plastic surgeon as well.


Breast Conserving Surgery

In these types of surgery, only a part of the affected breast is removed, although how much is removed depends on the size and location of the tumor and other factors. If radiation therapy is to be given after surgery, small metallic clips (which will show up on x-rays) may be placed inside the breast during surgery to mark the area for the radiation treatments.

Lumpectomy removes only the breast lump and a surrounding margin of normal tissue. Radiation therapy is usually given after a lumpectomy. If adjuvant chemotherapy is to be given as well, radiation is usually delayed until the chemotherapy is completed.

Partial (segmental) mastectomy or quadrantectomy removes more breast tissue than a lumpectomy. For a quadrantectomy, one-quarter of the breast is removed. Radiation therapy is usually given after surgery. Again, this may be delayed if chemotherapy is to be given as well.

If cancer cells are found at any of the edges of the piece of tissue removed, it is said to have positive margins. When no cancer cells are found at the edges of the tissue, it is said to have negative or clear margins. The presence of positive margins means that that some cancer cells may have been left behind after surgery. If the pathologist finds positive margins in the tissue removed by breast-conserving surgery, the surgeon may need to go back and remove more tissue. This operation is called a re-excision. If the surgeon can't remove enough breast tissue to get clear surgical margins, a mastectomy may be needed.

For most women with stage I or II breast cancer, breast-conservation therapy (lumpectomy/partial mastectomy plus radiation therapy) is as effective as mastectomy. Survival rates of women treated with these 2 approaches are the same. However, breast-conservation therapy is not an option for all women with breast cancer (see "Choosing Between Lumpectomy and Mastectomy" below).

Radiation therapy can sometimes be omitted as a part of breast-conserving therapy. Although this is somewhat controversial, women may consider lumpectomy without radiation therapy if all of the following are true:


  • they are age 70 years or older
  • they have a tumor 2 cm or less that has been completely removed (with clear margins)
  • the tumor is hormone receptor-positive, and the women is getting hormone therapy (such as tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor)
  • no lymph nodes contained cancer

You should discuss this possibility with your health care team.

Possible side effects: Side effects of these operations can include pain, temporary swelling, tenderness, and hard scar tissue that forms in the surgical site. As with all operations, bleeding and infection at the surgery site are also possible.

The larger the portion of breast removed, the more likely it is that there will be a noticeable change in the shape of the breast afterward. If the breasts look very different after surgery, it may be possible to have some type of reconstructive surgery (see the section"Reconstructive Surgery" ), or to have the unaffected breast reduced in size to make the breasts more symmetrical. It may even be possible to have this done during the initial surgery. It's very important to talk with your doctor (and possibly a plastic surgeon) before surgery to get an idea of how your breasts are likely to look afterward, and to learn what your options might be.


Reconstructive Surgery

The following information is based on material from the American Cancer Society offsite link

After having a mastectomy (or some breast-conserving surgeries), you may want to consider having the breast mound rebuilt. This is called breast reconstruction.  

The purpose of breast reconstruction is restore the breast's appearance after surgery, not to treat the cancer. 

There are several types of  surgery in which a breast is reconstructed. Some use saline (salt water) or silicone implants, while others use tissues from other parts of your body (autologous tissue reconstruction). For a discussion of the different reconstruction options, see the American Cancer Society document, Breast Reconstruction offsite link After Mastectomy. 

If you are going to have breast surgery and are thinking about having reconstruction: 

  • Before having surgery, consult with a plastic surgeon who is an expert in breast reconstruction.
  • You may also find it helpful to talk with a woman who has had the type of reconstruction you might be considering. Your doctor’s staff or American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery offsite link volunteers can help you make a connection.

Keep in mind that:

  • Decisions about the type of reconstruction and when it will be done is up to you, the patient. Decisions generally depend on your medical situation and personal preferences.
  • There is likely a choice between having a breast reconstructed at the same time as the mastectomy (immediate reconstruction) or at a later time (delayed reconstruction).


Mastectomy involves removing all of the breast tissue, sometimes along with other nearby tissues.

In a simple or total mastectomy, the surgeon removes the entire breast, including the nipple, but does not remove underarm lymph nodes or muscle tissue from beneath the breast. Sometimes this is done for both breasts (a double mastectomy), especially when it is done as preventive surgery in women at very high risk for breast cancer. Most women, if they are hospitalized, can go home the next day.

For some women considering immediate reconstruction, a skin-sparing mastectomy can be done. In this procedure, most of the skin over the breast (other than the nipple and areola) is left intact. This can work as well as a simple mastectomy. The amount of breast tissue removed is the same as with a simple mastectomy.

This approach is only used when immediate breast reconstruction is planned. It may not be suitable for larger tumors or those that are close to the skin. Implants or tissue from other parts of the body are used to reconstruct the breast. Although this approach has not been used for as long as the more standard type of mastectomy, many women prefer it because it offers the advantage of less scar tissue and a reconstructed breast that seems more natural.

Some doctors doing a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy might consider doing a subcutaneous mastectomy. In this procedure, the incision is made below the breast. The breast tissue is removed, but the breast skin and nipple are left in place. This is followed by breast reconstruction. This procedure leaves less visible scars, but it also leaves behind more breast tissue than other forms of mastectomy, so the chances that cancer may develop in the remaining tissue are higher than for a skin-sparing or simple mastectomy. Because of the higher chance of cancer developing, most doctors do not recommend this procedure for women who opt for a preventative mastectomy.

A modified radical mastectomy is a simple mastectomy plus removal of axillary (underarm) lymph nodes. Surgery to remove these lymph nodes is discussed in further detail later in this section.

A radical mastectomy is an extensive operation where the surgeon removes the entire breast, axillary lymph nodes, and the pectoral (chest wall) muscles under the breast. This surgery was once very common. But a modified radical mastectomy has been proven to be as just as effective without the disfigurement and side effects of a radical mastectomy, so radical mastectomies are rarely done now. This operation may still be done for large tumors that are growing into the pectoral muscles under the breast.

Possible side effects: Aside from post-surgical pain and the obvious change in the shape of the breast(s), possible side effects of mastectomy include wound infection, hematoma (buildup of blood in the wound), and seroma (buildup of clear fluid in the wound). If axillary lymph nodes are also removed, other side effects may occur (see Axillary lymph node dissection).

Choosing Between Lumpectomy and Mastectomy

Many women with early-stage cancers can choose between breast-conserving surgery and mastectomy.

The main advantage of a lumpectomy is that it allows a woman to keep most of her breast. A disadvantage is the usual need for radiation therapy -- most often for 5 to 6 weeks -- after surgery. A small number of women having breast-conserving surgery may not need radiation while a small percentage of women who have a mastectomy will still need radiation therapy to the breast area.

When deciding between a lumpectomy and mastectomy, be sure to get all the facts. You may have an initial gut preference for mastectomy as a way to "take it all out as quickly as possible." Women tend to prefer mastectomy more often than their surgeons do because of this feeling. But the fact is that in most cases, mastectomy does not give you any better chance of long-term survival or a better outcome from treatment. Studies following thousands of women for more than 20 years show that when a lumpectomy can be done, mastectomy does not provide any better chance of survival than lumpectomy.

Although most women and their doctors prefer lumpectomy and radiation therapy when it's a reasonable option, your choice will depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • how you feel about losing your breast
  • how you feel about getting radiation therapy
  • how far you would have to travel and how much time it would take to have radiation therapy
  • whether you think you will want to have more surgery to reconstruct your breast after having a mastectomy
  • your preference for mastectomy as a way to 'get rid of all your cancer as quickly as possible
  • your fear of the cancer coming back

For some women, mastectomy may clearly be a better option. For example, lumpectomy or breast conservation therapy is usually not recommended for:

  • women who have already had radiation therapy to the affected breast
  • women with 2 or more areas of cancer in the same breast that are too far apart to be removed through 1 surgical incision, while keeping the appearance of the breast satisfactory
  • women whose initial lumpectomy along with re-excision(s) has not completely removed the cancer
  • women with certain serious connective tissue diseases such as scleroderma or lupus, which may make them especially sensitive to the side effects of radiation therapy
  • pregnant women who would require radiation while still pregnant (risking harm to the fetus)
  • women with a tumor larger than 5 cm (2 inches) across that doesn't shrink very much with neoadjuvant chemotherapy
  • women with inflammatory breast cancer
  • women with a cancer that is large relative to her breast size

Other factors may need to be taken into account as well. For example, young women with breast cancer and a known BRCA mutation are at very high risk for a second cancer. These women may want to consider having a mastectomy, or even a double mastectomy, to both treat the cancer and reduce this risk.

Axillary Lymph Node Dissection

To determine if the breast cancer has spread to axillary (underarm) lymph nodes, some of these lymph nodes may be removed and looked at under the microscope. This is an important part of staging and determining treatment and outcomes. When the lymph nodes are affected, there is an increased likelihood that cancer cells have spread through the bloodstream to other parts of the body.

As noted above, axillary lymph node dissection is part of a radical or modified radical mastectomy procedure. It may also be done along with a breast-conserving procedure, such as lumpectomy. Anywhere from about 10 to 40 (though usually less than 20) lymph nodes are removed.

The presence of cancer cells in the lymph nodes under the arm is an important factor in considering adjuvant therapy. Axillary dissection is used as a test to help guide other breast cancer treatment decisions.

Possible side effects: As with other operations, pain, swelling, bleeding, and infection are possible.

The main possible long-term effect of removing axillary lymph nodes is lymphedema (swelling of the arm). This occurs because any excess fluid in the arms normally travels back into the bloodstream through the lymphatic system. Removing the lymph nodes sometimes causes this fluid to remain and build up in the arm.

Up to 30% of women who have underarm lymph nodes removed develop lymphedema. It also occurs in up to 3% of women who have a sentinel lymph node biopsy (see below). It may be more common if radiation is given after surgery. Sometimes the swelling lasts for only a few weeks and then goes away. Other times, the swelling lasts a long time. Ways to help prevent or reduce the effects of lymphedema are discussed in the section, What Happens After Treatment For Breast Cancer?  If your arm is swollen, tight, or painful after lymph node surgery, be sure to tell someone on your cancer care team right away.

You may also have short- or long-term limitations in moving your arm and shoulder after surgery. Your doctor may give you exercises to ensure that you do not have permanent problems with movement (a frozen shoulder). Numbness of the skin of the upper, inner arm is another common side effect because the nerve that controls sensation here travels through the lymph node area.



Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy

Although axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) is a safe operation and has low rates of side effects other than lymphedema, in many cases doctors will check the lymph nodes first with a sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB), which is a way of learning if cancer has spread to lymph nodes without removing all of them.

In this procedure the surgeon finds and removes the first lymph node(s) (sentinel node or nodes) to which a tumor drains, and the one(s) most likely to contain cancer cells if they have started to spread. To do this, the surgeon injects a radioactive substance and/or a blue dye into the tumor or the area around it. Lymphatic vessels will carry these substances into the sentinel node(s). The doctor can use a special device to detect the radioactivity in the nodes that the radioactive substance flows into or can look for lymph nodes that have turned blue. These are separate ways to find the sentinel node, but are often done together as a double check. The doctor then cuts the skin over the area and removes the nodes. These nodes (often 2 or 3) are then looked at closely by the pathologist. (Because fewer nodes are removed than in an ALND, each one can be looked at more closely for any cancer).

If there is no cancer in the sentinel node(s), it's very unlikely that the cancer has spread to other lymph nodes, so no further lymph node surgery is needed. The patient can avoid the potential side effects of a full ALND (see above).

If the sentinel node(s) has cancer, the surgeon will do a full axillary lymph node dissection to see how many other lymph nodes are involved. The lymph node can sometimes be checked for cancer during surgery. If cancer is found in the sentinel lymph node, the surgeon may go on to remove more lymph nodes or even do a full axillary dissection. If no cancer cells are seen in the lymph node at the time of the surgery, or if the sentinel node is not checked at the time of the surgery, the lymph node(s) will be examined in greater detail over the next several days. If cancer is found in the lymph node, the surgeon may recommend a full axillary lymph node dissection at a later time.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy requires a great deal of skill. It should be done only by a surgical team known to have experience with this technique. If you are thinking about having this type of biopsy, ask your health care team if they do them regularly.

Post-Mastectomy Pain Syndrome

Post-mastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS) is chronic nerve (neuropathic) pain after lumpectomy or mastectomy. Studies have shown that between 20% and 60% of women develop PMPS after surgery, but it is often not recognized as such. The classic signs of PMPS are chest wall pain and tingling down the arm. Pain may also be felt in the shoulder, scar, arm, or armpit. Other common complaints include numbness, shooting or pricking pain, or unbearable itching.

PMPS is thought to be linked to damage done to the nerves in the armpit and chest during surgery. But the causes are not known. Because major surgeries are less often used to treat breast cancer today, PMPS is becoming less of a problem.

It is important to talk to your doctor about any pain you are having. PMPS can cause you to not use your arm the way you should and over time you could lose the ability to use it normally.

PMPS can be treated. Opioids or narcotics are medicines commonly used to treat pain, but they may not work well for nerve pain. But there are medicines and treatments that do work for this kind of pain. Talk to your doctor to get the pain control you need.