Breast cancer surgery

How you prepare

Discuss your options with a breast cancer surgeon

Your initial meeting with a breast cancer surgeon can help you understand your treatment options and what you can expect from surgery. Prepare for this meeting by creating a list of questions to ask, such as:

  • Which operations are best for my particular case?
  • Does each option offer the same chance for breast cancer cure?
  • How much of my breast needs to be removed?
  • Should my healthy breast be removed at the same time?
  • How many operations will I need?
  • What are my options for reconstruction?
  • Can the reconstruction be started at the same time as my cancer surgery?
  • How will my breast look after surgery? Will my breasts look the same?
  • Can you show me pictures of other people that have undergone these procedures?
  • If I choose to forgo reconstruction, what will my breast look like?
  • Is surgery safe for me?
  • How much time will I spend in the hospital?
  • How much time will I need for recovery? When can I return to work?
  • How many breast cancer surgeries have you done?
  • If you had a family member in my situation, what would you recommend?

During breast cancer surgery

Breast cancer surgery is done in a hospital. Before the procedure, you're given medicine (general anesthesia) that keeps you in a sleep-like state.

What happens during your surgery will depend on the operation, but you can expect:

  • An incision in your breast to remove cancer and surrounding tissue. How much tissue is removed will depend on whether you undergo lumpectomy to remove part of the breast tissue or mastectomy to remove all of the breast tissue. The placement and length of the incision depends on the location of the cancer within the breast.
  • An assessment of the lymph nodes in your armpit. During a sentinel node biopsy, the surgeon removes a few lymph nodes into which a tumor is most likely to drain first (sentinel nodes). These are then tested for cancer. If no cancer is present, no additional lymph nodes need to be removed.

    If cancer is found, the surgeon may remove more lymph nodes or recommend radiation therapy to your lymph nodes after surgery. Sometimes both lymph node treatments are combined.

  • Closure of the incision. The surgeon closes the incision with attention to your appearance. Dissolvable stitches are placed to reduce scarring.
  • Reconstruction, if you choose. If you are undergoing mastectomy and choose breast reconstruction, the reconstruction is most frequently started at the time of your cancer operation. In some cases, reconstruction may be delayed and done in a separate surgery.

After breast cancer surgery

After your surgery, you can expect to:

  • Be taken to a recovery room where your blood pressure, pulse and breathing are monitored
  • Have a dressing (bandage) over the surgery site
  • Possibly have pain, numbness and a pinching sensation in your underarm area
  • Receive instructions on how to care for yourself at home, including taking care of your incision and drains, recognizing signs of infection, and understanding activity restrictions
  • Talk with your health care team about when to resume wearing a bra or wearing a breast prosthesis
  • Be given prescriptions for pain medication and possibly an antibiotic
  • Resume your regular diet
  • Shower the day after surgery

Expect to spend one night in the hospital after mastectomy if you also undergo breast reconstruction. Those undergoing mastectomy without reconstruction or lumpectomy may leave the hospital the day of surgery.