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Surgery For Breast Cancer

What To Expect With Surgery

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© American Cancer Society 2010

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.


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