What should I expect before and after breast cancer surgery?

Dr. Helena R. Chang, MD
Surgical Oncologist

Breast cancer surgery varies from lumpectomy to mastectomy with or without reconstruction and may include lymph node surgery. Before breast cancer surgery, it is important to keep yourself healthy, not get sick and not take any medications that may cause bleeding. After midnight before the surgery, do not drink or eat anything so you won't have a full stomach that could cause aspiration when you are under anesthesia.

The healing in general is quite easy for breast surgery. It is more involved when it comes to lymph node surgery. This is especially true for those women who have had axillary lymph node dissection looking at the axillary lymph nodes for signs of cancer spread.

Drains are necessary for women who have had mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection. Drains are not necessary for lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node procedures. In general, doctors will remove the drains once the drainage is less than or equal to 25 to 30 cubic centimeters over a 24-hour period.

Breast cancer surgery is a personal decision. Your care team will help you understand all of your breast cancer surgery options so you can decide on the treatment that is right for you.

  • Prior to breast cancer surgery, your care team will explain what you can expect, answer your questions and help you feel comfortable with the upcoming procedure. Also, your surgeon may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy to determine which lymph nodes need to be removed in the underarm, and help to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema.
  • During breast cancer surgery, pathologists can evaluate tissue samples as they are removed and provide pathology results immediately. This helps to ensure that your surgical oncology team is able to remove as much cancerous tissue as possible during surgery, reducing the likelihood that you will have to undergo multiple surgeries.
  • After breast cancer surgery, your care team will work with you to help prevent lymphedema and manage any side effects. You may also have breast reconstruction (plastic surgery) to rebuild the breast. In addition, an image enhancement specialist should be available to help you find ways to look and feel your best.

My first expectation after breast cancer surgery, as a surgeon, is cure. That is always the number one goal. The second expectation is improved quality of life, and the third is good cosmetic outcome. That’s how patients have to prioritize their goals.

Also, don’t underestimate your surgery. If you’re the patient, it’s always a big deal. So make sure you’ve reviewed the pre-and post-op instructions from your surgeon, so that you understand the process.

After breast cancer surgery, make sure you make time for yourself. A lot of women I see will want to try and take their kids to school and do soccer mom stuff, but that’s not always feasible.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.