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UCLA Health’s Breast care specialists develop a personalized plan to help you recover. For more information, reach a cancer care specialist at 888-662-8252

Surgery is usually the first line of treatment for breast cancer. However, in some cases, chemotherapy may be recommended first.

One surgical option is a breast-conserving surgery, known as a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy. Another option is a full mastectomy. While lumpectomy removes the tumor and some normal surrounding breast tissue, mastectomy removes the entire breast. The option that is right for you is determined by your breast surgeon based on the size of your tumor, your breast size, and personal preference, as well as other aspects of your medical history. If a mastectomy is performed, breast reconstruction can be done during the same surgery or at a later time.

During the lumpectomy or mastectomy, some of the lymph nodes in the armpit will likely be removed to determine if the cancer has spread.

If surgery is not necessary for early breast cancer, a procedure known as a sentinel lymph node biopsy may be performed to see if cancerous cells have drained into your first underarm lymph nodes, closest to the breast. If cancer is not found in these lymph nodes, no additional lymph nodes will need to be removed. This technique offers patients a faster recovery time and a lower risk of a type of swelling in the arm, called lymphedema.

Questions you may want to ask your doctor about surgery:

  • Am I a candidate for a lumpectomy? Why or why not?
  • If I have a lumpectomy, will my treated breast differ in size and shape from my other breast?
  • If I have a lumpectomy, will I be able to breastfeed if I have a child in the future?
  • Do I need to have a mastectomy?
  • Do the lymph nodes under my arm need to be removed?
  • Do you recommend a sentinel lymph node biopsy?
  • Do you recommend an axillary node biopsy?
  • Will I need to be admitted to the hospital for the operation?
  • If so, how long will I need to stay in the hospital?
  • Am I at risk for developing lymphedema? If so, how can we reduce this risk?
  • Where will the scar be and what will it look like?
  • Will my arm be affected by surgery? If so, for how long?
  • Will I need physical therapy?