It used to be thought that the more the surgeon cut from a woman’s breast, the more likely she was to survive breast cancer. By the time surgery was over, a woman with a small tumor in one breast would have lost her breast, the chest muscles underneath and a trail of the lymph nodes up to her collarbone. It’s an image that still holds great power for many women who are newly diagnosed, but it’s an erroneous one.
Fortunately, such radical surgery is now rare. Mastectomies, in which the whole breast is removed, are far less invasive and disfiguring than before. And doctors have increasingly recommended that women with early-stage breast cancer undergo a less invasive surgery called a lumpectomy, which involves removing only the “lump,” or tumor, and some surrounding tissue. Long-term studies have shown that for women whose tumors are small and caught early, lumpectomy with radiation is as lifesaving as mastectomy.
The amount of tissue you’ll need to have removed depends on the size and location of the tumor, how aggressive it is, and what options you have in terms of additional therapies. (Almost all breast cancer patients need further treatment after surgery, such as radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or a combination of these, in order to kill off any cancer cells that remain.) If your tumor is expected to respond well to hormone therapy and radiation, for example, it may be possible to have a portion of the breast removed rather than all of it. Here are the different types of surgery you and your doctor will choose from.
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