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Types of Surgery for Breast Cancer

Several types of surgery are used to treat breast cancer. The goal of each is to remove the cancer. You and your surgeon will decide which approach is best for you.

In these drawings, the tissue within the dotted line is the part removed for each type of surgery. 

Cutaway view of breast with tumor
Lumpectomy

Cutaway view of breast with tumor
Simple mastectomy

Cutaway view of breast with tumor
Modified radical mastectomy

Lumpectomy

The goal of lumpectomy is to remove the cancer while conserving the breast. In fact, lumpectomy may also be called breast-conserving surgery. To do this surgery, the surgeon removes the breast tissue that contains the cancer cells. A margin of normal tissue around the cancer is also taken out. This surgery may not need a hospital stay. In most cases, it is followed by radiation therapy.

Simple mastectomy

During a simple mastectomy, the surgeon removes all of the breast tissue, plus the nipple. Underarm lymph nodes and the chest muscles are not removed. This surgery most often needs a hospital stay. Based on the results of surgery and follow-up tests, more treatment may also be needed.

Modified radical mastectomy

During modified radical mastectomy, the surgeon removes all the breast tissue and the nipple. Some of the lymph nodes in the armpit near the breast are removed as well. This surgery most often needs a hospital stay. Based on the results of follow-up tests, more treatment may be needed.

Checking the lymph nodes

If cancer cells break away from a tumor, they can travel in the lymph fluid to nearby lymph nodes. During surgery, your first lymph node or nodes may be removed and checked for cancer. This is called a sentinel node biopsy. In some cases, all of the nodes are removed. If the nodes contain cancer, more treatment is often needed because the cancer may have spread to other parts of the body. 

Risks and possible complications

Risks of breast and lymph node surgery include:

  • Pain (which improves as you heal and recover)

  • Numbness (due to nerve damage)

  • Bleeding or infection

  • Fluid collection (seroma)

  • Long-term swelling of the arm (lymphedema)

  • Stiffness of the shoulder

Your healthcare team can tell you what to expect based on the type of surgery you have. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Cunningham, Louise, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Last Review Date: 10/31/2015
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