Once a diagnosis for breast cancer is made by your doctor, and the pathologist has staged the cancer, the next step is finding the right course of treatment. For most breast cancers, surgery usually is what doctors will recommend, though it may be combined with other forms of treatment in an effort to rid the body of the disease. There are several different types of procedures used in the removal of breast cancer, ranging from the types that avoid the removal of the breast to total mastectomies.

Breast-sparing surgeries

Depending on the stage of your breast cancer and the size of the tumor, operations may be available which remove the cancer while sparing the breast. Some of the most common breast-sparing surgeries are excisional biopsies, lumpectomies or segmental mastectomies. Excisional biopsy procedures, in which the tumor is removed surgically, may be the only course of treatment needed if the cancer is in its earliest stages. When a lumpectomy is performed, the tumor is removed along with some surrounding normal tissue, and some of the chest wall if necessary. This is done in an effort to avoid a recurrence of the disease. Segmental mastectomies are similar to lumpectomies, however several of the nearest breast ducts are removed in addition to the tumor.


In cases in which breast-sparing surgeries aren’t possible, sometimes the surgeon must remove the breast. The entire breast, along with some lymph nodes from under the arm, is removed during a total mastectomy, or simple mastectomy. If most or all of those lymph nodes are removed, that procedure is called a modified radical mastectomy. There is also a procedure known as a complete radical mastectomy, but this operation is becoming less common as time moves on. This can be attributed to the fact that the surgery called for the removal of the entire breast, overlaying skin, all chest wall muscles under the breast, and all lymph nodes under the arm. Often, such a surgery left the patient disfigured or disabled.

When the surgeon recommends that one or more lymph nodes from the underarm area be removed and checked for cancer, it is known as a sentinel node dissection. If cancer is discovered in the lymph nodes, additional procedures or treatments may be necessary. It should be noted that surgery often is not an effective course of treatment for stage IIIc inoperable breast cancers, as well as when the cancer has spread to distant areas of the body in stage IV.