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Surgical options for breast cancer treatment

Surgical options for breast cancer treatment
October 4, 2022

Most people diagnosed with breast cancer undergo surgery to remove their cancer from the breast as well as have lymph nodes removed as part of their treatment. 

"Surgical resection of the tumor from the breast and also evaluation of the lymph nodes are used for the vast majority of patients with breast cancer, in particular, those patients where the disease is limited to the breast," says Dr. Judy C. Boughey, a surgical oncologist at Mayo Clinic. "One of the areas where often breast surgery does not have a role is if the breast cancer has spread or metastasized to other areas of the body. So for patients with stage 4 breast cancer, surgery has a much more questionable role."

Surgery is used to treat most stages of breast cancer, but it is rarely used to treat metastatic breast cancer — breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer surgery may be used alone or in combination with other treatments, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and radiation therapy. 

Breast cancer surgery includes different procedures, such as:

  • Surgery to remove the entire breast (mastectomy)
  • Surgery to remove a portion of the breast tissue (lumpectomy)
  • Surgery to remove nearby lymph nodes
  • Surgery to reconstruct a breast after mastectomy

Which breast cancer operation is best for an individual depends on the size and stage of the cancer, other treatment options available, and the goals and preferences of each patient.

For people with a very high risk of breast cancer, a preventive (prophylactic) mastectomy may be an option to reduce the risk of future breast cancer. 

With so many options and decisions to be made, preparing for breast cancer surgery can be a challenge. It's important to be comfortable with your surgeon and to have the support of family and loved ones.

"Starting on the breast cancer journey is always a very challenging time," says Dr. Boughey. "Lean on your closest loved ones that you let into your inner circle and talk to them about your diagnosis, your treatment and your journey."

Dr. Boughey also encourages people to remember that everyone's journey is unique and to rely on your care team for trusted information.

"I think one thing to be very aware of with breast cancer is it is a very common disease, and every one of us knows someone or someone's relative that has been affected by this disease," explains Dr. Boughey. "Truthfully, breast cancer really is not one disease. And so I would just caution against hearing about your friends and their experience because it may have been a different size tumor and may have been treated a different way. And most importantly, it was likely a different tumor biology. And so you don't necessarily always have to listen to everybody's story and experience because that doesn't mean that yours will be the same. Share with your doctors some of the concerns that you've heard from your friends, from your colleagues, what you may have read on the internet, so that if they're not true, your team can dispel those myths for you and make you feel more comfortable."

On this Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast, Dr. Boughey discusses how surgery is used in the treatment of breast cancer.