What is a mastectomy? 

Published: Tuesday, February 27, 2024
General Surgery

The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 310,000 American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in 2024, including 9,840 women in Georgia alone. If you’re diagnosed with the disease, a mastectomy might be recommended. 

A breast cancer diagnosis can quickly feel overwhelming, and you may have many questions about what the diagnosis means for your health and what comes next. Treatment for breast cancer often includes a surgical procedure known as mastectomy.  

Mastectomy has been around for many decades now, and techniques for performing the procedure have greatly improved. Keep reading to find answers to some commonly asked questions about the procedure. 

Who needs a mastectomy?

Mastectomy, which is the surgical removal of a breast, may be recommended as part of a breast cancer treatment plan in several scenarios. For one, mastectomy will be recommended if cancer cannot be fully removed during a breast-conserving procedure such as lumpectomy.  

Mastectomy is also recommended when a woman cannot or should not undergo radiation therapy, which is necessary in combination with breast-conserving surgery. Double mastectomy, which is the removal of both breasts, is typically recommended in cases where a woman is at high risk of cancer recurring or developing in the second breast. 

In addition to these three situations, some women simply choose mastectomy instead of breast-conserving surgery for personal reasons.  

It’s important to note that sometimes mastectomy is performed even without a breast cancer diagnosis, what’s known as prophylactic mastectomy. Women who have a family history of breast cancer, particularly those who have genetic mutations linked to breast cancer, may choose to undergo double mastectomy as a preventive measure. 

What happens during a mastectomy?

There are two main types of mastectomies: total (or simple) mastectomy and modified radical mastectomy.  

During a total mastectomy, the entire breast and the lining of the chest muscle around that breast will be removed, but other tissue is left intact. In some cases, a sentinel node biopsy may be performed to test for the presence of cancer in the lymph nodes.  

If a woman wishes to have breast reconstruction after the procedure, the skin of the breast can largely be left intact. This type of mastectomy is known as a skin-sparing mastectomy. If the nipple is also left intact, it’s called a nipple-sparing mastectomy. 

During a modified radical mastectomy, the entire breast, the lining of the surrounding chest muscles, and the axillary lymph nodes in the armpit are removed. This type of mastectomy is often recommended for inflammatory breast cancer or when the underarm lymph nodes contain cancer. 

Both types of mastectomies may be performed on a single breast or for both breasts. The removal of both breasts is called bilateral or double mastectomy. 

How long does it take to recover after a mastectomy?

After a mastectomy, most women are discharged home on the same day. A small percentage may stay one night for closer observation. During this time, your immediate postsurgical recovery will be monitored to ensure your healing begins as expected and you don’t develop complications. You’ll also be taught some basics for how to care for the surgical site and your arms after the procedure. 

Once you are discharged home, you can usually begin functioning fairly normally. It’s important to carefully follow your surgeon’s guidance on caring for yourself during the healing process. You’ll receive care instructions on topics such as signs of infection, bathing and showering, when to call the nurse, when and how to begin using your arm(s) again, pain control, and what to expect after surgery.  

It is normal to experience some discomfort in the chest, underarm, and shoulder, along with numbness across the chest. The soreness should diminish after a short time, but the numbness often remains long-term.  

Most women can return to regular activities within one month, though it may take longer to recover after a mastectomy combined with reconstruction. 

Will I need other treatment after a mastectomy?

Every breast cancer treatment plan is individualized for the specific needs of the patient. That means there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. 

There are multiple types of breast cancer treatment in addition to surgery, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. Women may need a combination of multiple therapies to fully eradicate breast cancer and keep it from recurring. 

Radiation therapy may be used after a mastectomy to treat the chest wall, the axillary lymph nodes, or the lymph nodes around the collarbone. Chemotherapy or targeted therapy may also be recommended following a mastectomy. If recommended in addition to radiation therapy, chemotherapy is usually completed first, followed by radiation therapy.  

Hormone therapy is frequently given following a mastectomy to lower the risk of recurrence. Different types of hormonal medications are given depending on whether a woman has gone through menopause or not. 

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, your breast surgeon or oncologist, as well as other members of your care team can guide you to the treatment options that will work best for you. They’ll base this decision on a number of factors, including the stage and type of breast cancer you have, your health, and your lifestyle.

Learn more

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you want the reassurance of knowing you can receive the care you need, close to home. At NGHS, you can find the advanced treatment options needed for breast cancer, including mastectomy.