Deciding Between Mastectomy or Lumpectomy
It may be hard to decide whether to have a mastectomy or a lumpectomy (also called breast conserving surgery).
First, talk with your surgeon to see if you have a choice between mastectomy and lumpectomy plus radiation therapy.
If you have a choice, take time to study your options. Weigh the risks and benefits of each and choose the surgery that’s right for you. Survival is the same no matter which option you choose .
Also, the choice of surgery does not affect whether you will need chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or HER2-targeted therapy. Drug therapies are given based on the characteristics of the tumor, not the type of surgery you have.
Neoadjuvant (preoperative) therapy
In some cases, neoadjuvant therapy (chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or HER2-targeted therapy before surgery) can change a woman’s surgical options.
Neoadjuvant therapy may shrink a tumor enough so a lumpectomy becomes an option to a mastectomy.
Sometimes, the lymph nodes in the underarm area are enlarged due to the spread of breast cancer to these lymph nodes. Neoadjuvant chemotherapy can shrink the tumors in the lymph nodes. This makes it easier to surgically remove these lymph nodes. In some cases, fewer lymph nodes will be removed.
Survival and breast cancer recurrence
Breast cancer recurrence
The risk of breast cancer recurrence (return of breast cancer) varies greatly from person to person. For example, the risk of recurrence varies by the stage of the breast cancer at diagnosis and the biology of the tumor.
Most people diagnosed with breast cancer will never have a breast cancer recurrence. However, everyone who has had breast cancer is at risk of recurrence.
Compared to mastectomy, there’s a slightly higher risk of local recurrence (the cancer returning within the breast) with lumpectomy . A local recurrence is treated with some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and/or HER2-targeted therapy.
For a summary of research studies on mastectomy versus lumpectomy plus radiation therapy and overall survival, visit the Breast Cancer Research Studies section.
Risks and benefits of mastectomy versus lumpectomy plus radiation therapy
Figure 5.3 below outlines some things to consider when choosing between mastectomy and lumpectomy plus radiation therapy.
The main benefit of lumpectomy plus radiation therapy is the breast is preserved as much as possible.
A potential benefit of mastectomy is radiation therapy may be avoided. Although some women will need radiation therapy after mastectomy, many will not. (Ask your health care team if you are likely to avoid radiation therapy if you have a mastectomy.)
Radiation therapy has some side effects and requires daily trips to a treatment center. If you can’t get to a radiation treatment center, or if you can’t have radiation therapy, mastectomy is usually a better option than lumpectomy.
Figure 5.3: Total mastectomy versus lumpectomy plus radiation therapy
Lumpectomy plus radiation therapy
Treatment for early breast cancer
Amount of tissue removed
Part of the breast (tries to keep the original look of the breast)
Extent of surgery
Major surgery with general anesthesia
Less extensive surgery with general or regional anesthesia
At least one overnight hospital stay needed
Often go home on same day as surgery (if axillary dissection isn’t done)
Almost always done
Temporary soreness of chest, underarm and shoulder
Chance of recurrence in the breast (local recurrence)
Very low for early stages of breast cancer
Low for early stages of breast cancer (but slightly higher than with mastectomy)
Chance of recurrence outside the breast (metastasis, distant recurrence)
Same as with lumpectomy plus radiation therapy
Same as with mastectomy
Chance of lymphedema (if have a sentinel node biopsy or axillary dissection)
What to expect after surgery
Pain and numbness
With either type of surgery, you will have some soreness in your chest, underarm and shoulder. If you have breast reconstruction at the same time as mastectomy, this discomfort can be more intense.
If lymph nodes in the underarm area (axillary nodes) are removed during surgery, you may also have some numbness and a burning feeling under and behind your arm.
After mastectomy, you’ll be numb across your chest (from your collarbone to the top of your rib cage). Unfortunately, this numbness is usually permanent. You may get some feeling back over time, but it will never be the same as before surgery.
After lumpectomy, you’re likely to have numbness along the surgical scar.
Learn more about the management of surgery-related pain.
If axillary lymph nodes are removed during surgery, there’s some risk of lymphedema.
Lymphedema is a condition where fluid collects in the arm (or other area such as the hand, fingers, chest/breast or back), causing it to swell.
Chemotherapy, hormone therapy and HER2-targeted therapy
The type of surgery you have does not affect whether you will have chemotherapy, hormone therapy or HER2-targeted therapy.
These drug therapies are given based on the characteristics of the tumor, not the type of surgery you have.
Differences in lumpectomy rates
Personal preference matters a lot when deciding between lumpectomy and mastectomy. Some women very much wish to keep their breasts, while for others, mastectomy offers peace of mind.
Where you live may affect your surgery choice. Compared to women who live in urban areas, those who live in rural areas are more likely to have a mastectomy . Women who live far from a center that offers radiation therapy (needed for lumpectomy) may prefer to have a mastectomy.
Talk with your health care provider about surgery options
Not all women can have a lumpectomy plus radiation therapy. Talk with your health care provider about whether lumpectomy is an option for you.
Learn about the risks and benefits of each surgery option. Talk with your provider about which treatments are best for you. This can help you feel you’re getting the best care possible.
It’s always OK to get a second opinion from a medical oncologist and/or breast surgeon at a different hospital or practice. Getting a second opinion can:
- Instill confidence in the first provider by confirming a course of treatment
- Give a different insight into your treatment
- Increase your options for care
- Give you a chance to meet with another provider, who may be better suited to treat your cancer
Learn more about getting good care.
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