Learning About Mastectomy

Skip to the navigation

What is a mastectomy?

Before and after a mastectomy

A mastectomy is surgery to remove the breast. Every woman's treatment plan and breast surgery are different. Your doctor will tell you how much of your breast will be removed. In some cases, lymph nodes and chest muscle are also removed.

When you find out that you have cancer, you may feel many emotions and may need some help coping. Seek out family, friends, and counsellors for support. You also can do things at home to make yourself feel better while you go through treatment. Call the Canadian Cancer Society (1-888-939-3333) or visit its website at www.cancer.ca for more information.

How is this surgery done?

  • In a simple or total mastectomy, the entire breast is removed. The lymph nodes and surrounding muscle are not. This surgery is often done for women with ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. This is cancer that starts in the milk ducts and has not spread. This surgery is also used for women who have a breast removed so they can prevent breast cancer.
  • In a modified radical mastectomy, the entire breast and the lymph nodes under the arm (axillary lymph nodes) are removed. This is the most common surgery for breast cancer.
  • In a radical mastectomy, the entire breast, all of the lymph nodes in the armpit, muscles under the chest, and some of the surrounding fatty tissue are removed. This surgery is rarely done. It is used only when a woman has many tumours and when cancer has entered the chest.
  • In breast-conserving surgery, the tumour and some healthy breast tissue are removed. Most of the breast remains. Examples of this type of surgery include partial mastectomy, lumpectomy, and quadrantectomy. Different amounts of the breast are removed in each surgery.
  • In a subcutaneous mastectomy, the tumour and some breast tissue are removed. The nipple, skin, lymph nodes, and chest wall muscles are not removed. This surgery is rarely done, because some cancer cells may remain.
  • A skin-sparing technique may be used for a simple or modified radical mastectomy. The breast tissue is removed through a tiny cut that is made around the nipple. This technique does not harm the skin. During a modified radical mastectomy, the lymph nodes are removed by making another cut in the armpit.

The type of surgery you have depends on:

  • The tumour size, type, and location.
  • The size of your breast.
  • The cancer stage.
  • Whether or not the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
  • Whether or not you have had radiation treatment.
  • Your age and health.

You and your doctor can decide which surgery is right for you.

What can you expect after surgery?

Recovery

Breast cancer surgery helps many women go on to lead normal lives. Your outcome depends on many things, especially the stage of the cancer.

You will probably be able to go back to work or your normal routine in 3 to 6 weeks. This depends on the type of work you do and any further treatment. Talk with your doctor about other treatment you may need.

Your personal preferences and considerations are important when choosing a treatment that is right for you.

Lymph nodes

If your lymph nodes are removed, your arm may swell. This is called lymphedema. You will have to take good care of your affected arm. Do not carry heavy things with that arm. Wear loose sleeves and bracelets. Your doctor or physiotherapist can teach you arm exercises that will let you move your arm as you always have.

Before you get blood pressure tests, blood draws, or shots in that arm, tell your doctor that you had lymph nodes removed.

Appearance

You will have a scar, but it will fade in time.

You have some choices in how you look. Talk to your doctor about breast forms. Ask about reconstructive surgery. This can sometimes be done at the same time as the mastectomy.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/ed

Enter L937 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About Mastectomy."