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There are two main types of surgery for people diagnosed with breast cancer: mastectomy and lumpectomy. A mastectomy removes the entire breast containing the tumor and has several types (total, radical and partial). A lumpectomy removes only the tumor itself with some surrounding breast tissue. No matter which surgery your health care team recommends, it is important to understand your options and ask questions.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before Surgery

If mastectomy or lumpectomy is a treatment option for you, here is a list of questions you may want to ask your health care team beforehand. As always, it can be helpful to bring your list of questions to your medical appointments and write down the doctor’s responses.

What type of surgery do I need? When your health care team recommends a treatment, make sure you understand why. Ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

How long will recovery take? Will surgery limit my arm use? After lumpectomy or mastectomy surgery, regular activities such as dressing or bathing can be difficult. Talk to your health care team about the challenges you may face after surgery.

How soon can I wear a bra after surgery? Surgery may cause skin sensitivity and discomfort. Talk to your health care team about the type of bra you can wear after surgery and when.

What is lymphedema and is this something I should be aware of? Lymphedema is a possible treatment side effect after lymph nodes are removed during breast surgery; it is a painful swelling in the arm that occurs when the body’s lymphatic fluid fails to circulate properly and builds up in the soft tissue instead. There are several ways to manage lymphedema. Your doctor or nurse can give you tips to prevent and reduce the swelling. For more information on lymphedema, read CancerCare’s ‘Coping With Lymphedema’ fact sheet.

Will I need radiation after surgery? Many individuals receive radiation after lumpectomy surgery. Speak to your health care team about whether this is a recommended treatment for you.

What side effects might I experience after surgery? Keep in mind that side effects may vary from person to person, and can be treated by your health care team. A key to managing side effects is to be aware of them and communicate with your health care team when they arise. Report them right away—don’t wait for your next appointment. Your health care team can help you cope with side effects of breast cancer treatment.

Should I consider breast reconstruction or a prosthetic? Breast reconstruction and prostheses are options that can be considered after a mastectomy or lumpectomy. Reconstructive surgery can rebuild your breast so it is about the same size and shape as it was before. Prostheses are man-made substitutes that can replace a part of the body and can help individuals feel and look more comfortable. A prosthetic can give a look of symmetry; many of the newer prostheses are made of a lighter-weight material and come in special forms that can be used in swimwear and night gowns. For more information on prostheses, read CancerCare’s ‘Prostheses Resources’ fact sheet. As always, consult with your health care team about which options are best for you.

Get Support

Surgery may leave you feeling exhausted and self-conscious about your body. Talking about your emotions may be hard, but it can also comfort you and the people who care about you.

Join a support group. Connecting with others who understand and relate to your experience can help you feel supported and less alone. CancerCare offers free support groups led by professional oncology social workers.

Reach out to family and friends. Loved ones may be able to offer assistance throughout your breast cancer surgery recovery, this can range from physical to emotional support. Consider speaking to loved ones about what would be helpful to you.

Talk to a counselor or oncology social worker. CancerCare’s professional oncology social workers understand the complex issues that can arise for someone living with breast cancer. Speaking one on one with an oncology social worker can help you develop strategies for coping with some of the challenges you may be facing. To speak with a professional oncology social worker, call 800-813-HOPE (4673).

Edited by Lauren Chatalian, LCSW

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This fact sheet is supported by Bristol Meyers Squibb.

Last updated Sunday, May 8, 2022

The information presented in this publication is provided for your general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with qualified health professionals who are aware of your specific situation. We encourage you to take information and questions back to your individual health care provider as a way of creating a dialogue and partnership about your cancer and your treatment.

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