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What's it like: To get a mastectomy

A mastectomy is a surgery to remove the breast. Someone might receive a mastectomy either to treat or prevent breast cancer.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: February 17, 2013

Why get a mastectomy?

A mastectomy is a surgery to remove the breast. Someone might receive a mastectomy either to treat or prevent breast cancer.

Many breast cancer patients are good candidates for a lumpectomy, or breast lump removal, which is a more conservative therapy. With a lumpectomy, your doctor will remove the tumor and the tissue around it. Patients with small tumors and noninvasive cancer are generally good candidates for lumpectomy.

Some patients might choose to receive a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy for personal reasons. For example, some patients might choose a mastectomy for fear their cancer will come back. This is not to say receiving a mastectomy offers better results. Recent research has shown that for some women, a lumpectomy might offer better results. Generally, a lumpectomy can cost more than $7,000 whereas a mastectomy can cost more than $10,000.

Another option is to undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor and then receive a lumpectomy after the tumor has shrunk to a small enough size. The decision of which option to choose can be difficult to make, and it is important to understand your options and ask any questions you have.

There are few reasons outside of breast cancer that a person would get a mastectomy. Some people who are transgender and are transitioning to men will receive a bilateral mastectomy, the procedure in which both breasts are removed.

In 2013, it's estimated that 232,340 women and 2,240 men will develop breast cancer. Of that, the National Cancer Institute estimates that 39,620 of those women and 410 of those men will die.

What happens when you get a mastectomy?

Each surgeon's technique will differ, but generally, to begin the surgery, you'll fall sleep via anesthesia. Your surgeon will make a series of incisions and attempt to remove most breast tissue. For most mastectomies, the patient's nipple will be removed.

Your surgeon might remove some of your lymph nodes under your arm, depending on how invasive your cancer is. The goal of the surgery is to remove the breast and provide a flat chest with a thin layer of skin. Some women choose to have reconstructive breast surgery while others do not.

What are the risk factors?

Bleeding and infection are risks for any surgery. With a mastectomy, there's risk that the infection site could become infected, along with the lungs, bladder or kidneys. There's a risk that scar tissue will develop where your breasts once were. Also, there's a risk of a hematoma, or a buildup of blood. You might also feel pain or stiffness in your shoulders. There's also a risk of heart attack or stroke during surgery.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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