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Surgical treatments for breast cancer

A row of smiling women wearing pink ribbons on their shirts

Breast cancer treatment often includes some type of surgery. Your doctor can help you decide on the best option for you.

Treatment for breast cancer usually includes some type of surgery, according to the National Cancer Institute. But the type of surgery performed varies from one person to the next.

Many factors can enter into a decision about surgery, including the size and stage of the tumor, the size of your breast, your overall health, and your personal feelings and preferences.

A thorough conversation with your doctor should come before any treatment decision, but this overview can help you get a basic idea of surgeries often used to treat breast cancer.

Lumpectomy or breast-conserving surgery removes the tumor and some of the tissue around the tumor. The tissue is examined for signs of cancer, and if cancer is found, more tissue may be removed.

Lumpectomies are usually followed by several weeks of radiation therapy, says the American Cancer Society (ACS). This helps destroy any remaining cancer cells and prevent the cancer from returning.

For most women with early-stage breast cancer, lumpectomy with radiation is just as effective as removing the entire breast, according to the ACS.  

Total (simple) mastectomy removes the whole breast. Lymph nodes (glands under the arm where breast cancer is likely to travel first if it starts spreading) may also be removed.

Skin-sparing mastectomy leaves most of the skin over the breast intact, so only breast tissue, the nipple and the areola are removed. There is often less scar tissue with this type of mastectomy. 

Nipple-sparing mastectomy is similar to a skin-sparing mastectomy. It removes breast tissue but leaves the breast skin and nipple in place.

Modified radical mastectomy removes the breast, some lymph nodes, and sometimes the lining over the chest muscle and some chest muscle.

Radical mastectomy removes the breast, chest muscles under the breast and lymph nodes. This surgery was once common but has become rare since studies have shown that modified mastectomies are just as effective.

Reconstructive surgery

Surgery to restore the appearance of the breast can be done at the same time as a mastectomy or weeks, months or years later. If you're interested in this surgery, ask your doctor about your options.

Getting ready

If you're considering or facing surgery for breast cancer, it may help to get all of the information you can ahead of time. Write down questions to ask your doctor, and talk to people who have had breast cancer surgery.

Some programs, such as the ACS's Reach to Recovery, connect people in various stages of diagnosis and treatment with people who have had similar experiences.

Reviewed 8/29/2022

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