A lumpectomy involves removing the cancer and some of the healthy tissue that surrounds it. This illustration shows one possible incision that can be used for this procedure, though your surgeon will determine the approach that's best for your particular situation.
Lumpectomy (lum-PEK-tuh-me) is surgery to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue from your breast.
During a lumpectomy procedure, the surgeon removes the cancer or other abnormal tissue and a small amount of the healthy tissue that surrounds it. This ensures that all of the abnormal tissue is removed.
Lumpectomy is also called breast-conserving surgery or wide local excision because only a portion of the breast is removed. In contrast, during a mastectomy, all of the breast tissue is removed. Doctors may also refer to lumpectomy as an excisional biopsy or quadrantectomy.
Lumpectomy is a treatment option for early-stage breast cancer. Sometimes lumpectomy is used to rule out a cancer diagnosis. When a lumpectomy surgery is performed to remove cancer, it usually is followed by radiation therapy to the breast to reduce the chances of cancer returning.
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Why it's done
The goal of lumpectomy is to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue while maintaining the appearance of your breast. Studies indicate that lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy is as effective in preventing a recurrence of breast cancer as removal of the entire breast (mastectomy) for early-stage breast cancer.
Your doctor may recommend lumpectomy if a biopsy has shown that you have cancer and that the cancer is believed to be small and early stage. Lumpectomy may also be used to remove certain noncancerous or precancerous breast abnormalities.
Your doctor may not recommend lumpectomy for breast cancer if you:
- Have a history of scleroderma, a group of diseases that harden skin and other tissues and make healing after lumpectomy difficult
- Have a history of systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can worsen if you undergo radiation treatments
- Have two or more tumors in different quadrants of your breast that cannot be removed with a single incision, which could affect the appearance of your breast
- Have previously had radiation treatment to the breast region, which would make further radiation treatments too risky
- Have cancer that has spread throughout your breast and overlying skin, since lumpectomy would be unlikely to remove the cancer completely
- Have a large tumor and small breasts, which may cause a poor cosmetic result
- Don't have access to radiation therapy
Lumpectomy is a surgical procedure that carries a risk of side effects, including:
- Temporary swelling
- Formation of hard scar tissue at the surgical site
- Change in the shape and appearance of the breast, particularly if a large portion is removed
How you prepare
You'll meet with your surgeon a few days before your lumpectomy. Bring a list of questions to remind you to cover everything you want to know. Make sure you understand the procedure and its risks.
You'll be given instructions about pre-surgical restrictions and other things you need to know. The surgery is usually done as an outpatient procedure, so you can go home the same day.
Tell your doctor about any medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking in case something could interfere with the surgery. In general, to prepare for your lumpectomy, it's recommended that you:
- Stop taking aspirin or other blood-thinning medication. Your doctor may ask you to stop taking it a week or longer before the surgery to reduce your risk of bleeding.
- Check with your insurance company to determine whether the procedure is covered and if there are restrictions on where you can have it done.
- Don't eat or drink 8 to 12 hours before surgery, especially if you're going to have general anesthesia.
- Bring someone with you. Besides offering support, another person is needed to drive you home and listen to postoperative instructions because it may take several hours for the effects of the anesthesia to wear off.
What you can expect
Locating the area to be removed
Sentinel node biopsy
Sentinel node biopsy identifies the first few lymph nodes into which a tumor drains. The surgeon uses a harmless dye and a weak radioactive solution to locate the sentinel nodes. The nodes are removed and tested for signs of cancer.
Your lumpectomy procedure begins with locating the area of your breast that contains the abnormality (localization procedure). To do this, a doctor who uses imaging tests to diagnose and treat diseases (radiologist) uses a mammogram or ultrasound to locate the tumor and insert a thin wire, needle or small radioactive seed. Your surgeon uses this as a guide to find the precise area that needs to be removed during surgery.
If you have a lump or mass in your breast that can be easily felt through the skin, the localization procedure may not be necessary because the surgeon can more easily find the abnormal area to be removed.
Preparing for lymph node removal
Your surgeon may recommend removing lymph nodes near your armpit to see whether cancer has spread beyond the breast. Surgery to remove a few lymph nodes (sentinel node biopsy) is often recommended for early-stage breast cancer. If cancer was found in a lymph node before surgery or if there's a concern that the cancer has spread, your surgeon may recommend removing a number of lymph nodes near your armpit (axillary lymph node dissection).
Lymph node removal procedures include:
Sentinel node biopsy. During this procedure your surgeon removes only the first one or two nodes into which the cancer drains (sentinel nodes). These are then tested for cancer. Your doctor may recommend this procedure if there are no concerns about enlarged lymph nodes prior to your surgery.
Before your surgery, a radioactive substance or blue dye or both is injected into the area around the cancer or the skin above the cancer. The dye travels to the sentinel node or nodes, allowing your surgeon to identify and remove them.
If no cancer is present in the lymph nodes, no further lymph nodes need to be removed. If cancer is present, the surgeon will discuss options, such as receiving radiation to the armpit. If this is what you decide to do, you will not need to have more lymph nodes in the armpit removed.
- Axillary lymph node dissection. During this procedure, the surgeon removes a number of lymph nodes from your armpit. Your surgeon may recommend this procedure if a lymph node biopsy done before surgery shows signs of cancer.
During the procedure
A lumpectomy is usually performed using general anesthesia, which will put you into a sleep-like state during the procedure.
Your surgeon will make an incision over the tumor or over the area that contains the wire or seed, remove the tumor and some surrounding tissue, and send it to the lab for analysis. He or she will do the same for the sentinel lymph node or nodes if you're having a sentinel node biopsy or the axillary lymph nodes if you're having an axillary lymph node dissection.
The surgeon will then close the incisions with attention to preserving the appearance of your breast, using stitches (sutures) that will either dissolve on their own or be removed later by your doctor. Your surgeon may also place thin adhesive strips or use glue on the incision to keep it closed until it heals.
After the procedure
After your surgery, you'll be taken to a recovery room. During this time, your blood pressure, pulse and breathing will be monitored.
If you've had outpatient surgery — usually lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy — you'll be released when your condition is stable.
If you've had axillary lymph node dissection, you may need to stay in the hospital for a day or two if you're experiencing pain or bleeding.
Expect to have:
- A dressing (bandage) over the surgery site
- Some pain, numbness and a pinching sensation in your underarm area
- Written instructions about post-surgical care, including caring for the incision and dressing and recognizing signs of infection
- Prescriptions for pain medication and possibly an antibiotic
- Some restrictions of activity
- A follow-up appointment with your doctor, usually seven to 14 days after surgery
The results of your procedure should be available in a few days to one week. At the follow-up visit after your surgery, your doctor will explain the results. If you need more treatment, your doctor may recommend meeting with:
- A surgeon to discuss more surgery if the margins around your tumor weren't cancer-free
- A medical oncologist to discuss other forms of treatment after the operation, such as hormone therapy if your cancer is sensitive to hormones or chemotherapy or both
- A radiation oncologist to discuss radiation treatments, which are typically recommended after lumpectomy
- A counselor or support group to help you cope with having breast cancer
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