Mastectomy: 10 Things to Know

  • Breast cancer survivor
    What to Know About Mastectomy and Breast Cancer Surgery
    A mastectomy is the removal of part or the entire breast. It may also involve removing nearby tissues and lymph nodes. The type of mastectomy a woman needs depends on the stage and type of breast cancer, and her preference. One of the most important things to know if you or a loved one is facing breast cancer surgery is there are different types of mastectomy, from nipple-sparing mastectomy to radical mastectomy. Learn about mastectomy options, breast reconstruction, risks, and recovery.

  • Mother, daughter breast cancer
    1. There are two main reasons for mastectomy.
    It’s a common treatment for breast cancer, but mastectomy may also be prophylactic for women at high risk of developing breast cancer. This includes women with a strong family history of breast cancer and those who test positive for a gene mutation, such as mutation of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Prophylactic mastectomy will greatly reduce—but not eliminate—the risk of breast cancer. The extent of surgery can make a difference in how much you reduce your risk.

  • Woman talking with doctor
    2. There are different types of mastectomy procedures.
    The type of mastectomy you need depends on the stage and type of your breast cancer. The greater the spread of cancer cells, the more breast and nearby tissue the surgeon will remove. Partial mastectomy—known as a lumpectomy—removes the cancer and a small area of normal breast tissue around it. Radical mastectomy removes the entire breast, including breast tissue, nipple, areola, skin, underarm lymph nodes, and the chest wall muscles under the breast. Talk with your surgeon about these as well as nipple-sparing mastectomy, simple mastectomy, and a modified radical mastectomy.

  • Surgeons
    3. General surgeons perform mastectomy.
    A general surgeon specializes in the surgical treatment of a wide variety of diseases, disorders and conditions. Some general surgeons specialize in the treatment of patients with breast disease. They may use the term breast surgeon. Depending on the extent of surgery, the surgeon may send you home the same day, or you may spend a few days in the hospital. Mastectomy is performed with general anesthesia.

  • lymphedema
    4. There are risks and possible complications.
    Most mastectomies have good outcomes, but it is possible to have a reaction to the anesthesia, bleeding, blood clots, and infections. This is true of any surgery. Potential complications of a mastectomy include organ or nerve damage, scarring problems, and lymphedema. Lymphedema is severe swelling of the arm that can occur after mastectomy that removes lymph nodes. Talk with your surgeon about your specific risks and how to reduce them.

  • Woman resting
    5. Recovery times depend on the type of mastectomy.
    Your age, health, and type of surgery you have factor into your recovery time. It’s a gradual process. It will probably be several weeks before you're feeling back to normal. Full recovery can take 4 to 8 weeks. Having breast reconstruction at the same time may lengthen your recovery period.

  • Breast cancer doctor and patient
    6. Reconstruction of your breast is an option.
    Breast reconstruction rebuilds the breast mound to the size and shape it was before mastectomy. It may also involve recreating a nipple and areola. It’s a great option, but it isn’t right for every woman. It’s a very personal decision that involves many emotional issues. But there’s no rush to make it. There are other options—such as special bras and prostheses—that can restore the appearance of a normal bust line under clothing. Some women choose to live “breast free.” These options offer women the flexibility of having reconstruction in the future if they want it.

  • Despondent woman
    7. It can be an emotional experience.
    Some women struggle with their identity as a woman after mastectomy. You may feel a sense of loss over your femininity or sexuality. It may take time to process your feelings about the effects of your mastectomy. It will also take some time to adjust to a reconstructed breast if that’s what you choose. Many women find comfort in talking with therapists, support groups, and friends and family about the emotional aspects of a mastectomy.

  • Cancer couple
    8. There is life—and sex—after mastectomy.
    Losing your breast to cancer can lower your libido and change how you feel about your body. Talk with your partner about your fears and concerns. Remember that sex is both a physical and an emotional experience. Talk with your partner about your desires and how you can boost your emotional connection. You can enhance your relationship if you make decisions about your post-surgery sex life together.

  • Mammogram
    9. You still need to see your doctor for regular exams.
    This is the case regardless of the type of mastectomy. This may include regular breast exams and mammograms after a mastectomy if any breast tissue remains. Removing both breasts greatly reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of breast cancer developing or recurring.

  • Mammogram
    10. A second opinion can give you peace of mind.
    A second opinion can give you additional options that you hadn’t considered or it can reinforce your current decision. It can increase your confidence in your treatment so you aren’t left wondering if you made the right decision. A good doctor understands the value of a second opinion and should encourage you to get one. Some insurance companies even require them. Your doctor can refer you to another breast surgeon or plastic surgeon to discuss your mastectomy and reconstruction options. You can also search for breast surgeons and plastic surgeons near you.

Mastectomy: 10 Things to Know

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. 10 Myths About Breast Cancer Survivorship. Johns Hopkins University.
  2. Alternative to Reconstruction. BreastFree.
  3. Breast Reconstruction After Mastectomy. American Cancer Society.
  4. Deciding Between Lumpectomy and Mastectomy. Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
  5. Emotional Aspects of Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society.
  6. Is Breast Reconstruction Right for You?
  7. Managing Emotions. American Society of Clinical Oncology.
  8. Mastectomy. Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
  9. Preventive Mastectomy. National Cancer Institute.
  10. Prophylactic Mastectomy.
  11. Surgery Choices for Women with DCIS or Breast Cancer. National Cancer Institute.
  12. What is Mastectomy? 
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Last Review Date: 2021 Feb 17
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