Breast Cancer Surgery

This information is useful for adults
A doctor discusses options, possibly for breast cancer surgery

Every year, more than 230,000 women and 2,000 men in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer, and most of those patients undergo surgery for treatment. With medical advances, breast cancer is being detected at earlier stages, and less invasive procedures are now available. Together, doctors and patients determine which type of surgery may be appropriate, based on the patient’s goals, the size of the tumor, and how far the cancer has spread.

"Breast surgery today has far superior cosmetic outcomes due to our ability to offer nipple-sparing mastectomies to many of our patients," says Yale Medicine’s Mary Pronovost, MD, a breast surgeon who practices at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center at Trumbull and Bridgeport Hospital. "In addition, breast conservation outcomes are optimized by tissue rearrangement and other oncoplastic techniques that restore normal breast contour while eliminating the breast cancer."

Breast cancer surgery can be broken down into two main categories: 

  • Mastectomy. For most of the 20th century, mastectomy was the go-to treatment for any breast cancer. Total (or simple) mastectomy involves the complete removal of the breast, including the nipple. In modified radical mastectomy, lymph nodes and the lining over the chest muscles are also removed. Double mastectomy means that both breasts are removed.
  • Breast conservation treatment (also known as lumpectomy or partial mastectomy). This is an alternative to mastectomy that, as the name suggests, conserves more of the breast. The goal is to remove the cancer completely, as well as lymph nodes in some cases, while minimizing cosmetic changes. In addition to a change in the shape of the breast, these surgeries can result in side effects, including temporary tenderness and, over time, the formation of hard scar tissue on the surgical site.

Mastectomy is sometimes used as a prevention strategy among women who have a very high risk of breast cancer. In fact, there’s been a small but notable increase in the use of preventive double mastectomy in recent years, but some evidence suggests that less invasive options are just as effective.