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If you are diagnosed with breast cancer your surgeon may recommend removal of your breast. This operation is called a mastectomy.

Women at risk of developing breast cancer may also choose to undergo mastectomy.

What happens during a mastectomy?

A mastectomy is performed under general anaesthetic. The length of the procedure depends on how much breast tissue and muscle must be removed to decrease the risk of further cancer. Be sure and discuss what procedure you will have and any options for breast reconstruction with your surgeon.

  • Simple or total mastectomy - your surgeon will remove only the breast tissue. They will not remove your lymph nodes (nodes in your underarm area) or any surrounding muscles.
  • Modified radical mastectomy - your surgeon will remove the breast tissue and some of your lymph nodes. No muscles are removed.
  • Radical mastectomy - your surgeon removes the breast tissue, your lymph nodes and the muscles under your breast. This level of surgery is only performed if the chest wall muscles are found to be cancerous.

Patients who are able to have breast reconstruction shortly following a mastectomy may have “skin sparing” surgery to retain as much of the skin as possible. To learn more about breast reconstruction visit our treatment pages:

Your surgeon will insert long tubes in your wounds to help drain any excess fluid. They will close the wounds with stitches and cover the surgery site with dressings.

Immediately after your surgery you will be taken to the recovery area where our healthcare team will monitor your heart rate, temperature and blood pressure. Be sure and let staff know if you are in pain.

Once you are stable you will be taken to your room.

After a mastectomy

In the first few days after your mastectomy you may feel sore. Be sure and ask if you need any pain relief.
You will be given gentle exercises to prevent shoulder and arm stiffness.

Your length of hospital stay will depend on the level of surgery performed. You should plan on at least two to three days. The drains placed in your wounds may be removed before you go home.

Going home after a mastectomy

Be sure and arrange for someone to drive you home from hospital the day you are discharged.

We will advise you on suitable bras and inserts if you have not had reconstruction surgery. Be sure and clarify when you can begin to wear these before you leave hospital.

It can take a few weeks to recover from this surgery. You should allow yourself time to rest and recover. Rest when you are tired - fatigue is very common following a mastectomy.

Continue taking any pain medication as prescribed by your surgeon. You should not bathe or shower until any drains are removed. Take sponge baths until you are released to bathe normally.

Your stitches may be self dissolving or you may need to return to have them removed. You will receive instructions on caring for your scar.

Continue your gentle exercises to avoid stiffness. You should avoid any strenuous activity or chores until released by your surgeon. Be sure and discuss any return to work issues with your surgeon.

Most people recover from mastectomy with little or no complications. As in any surgery there may be complications:

  • Numbness of the surgical area
  • Tenderness of the surgical area
  • Fluid collection under the scar
  • Delayed healing of the surgical wound
  • Infection
  • Scar tissue
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