1. Surgery for breast cancer treatment
2. Which type of surgery will I have?
3. Breast-conserving surgery: lumpectomy or wide local excision
4. Quadrantectomy
5. Margins
6. Mastectomy
7. Breast reconstruction
8. The unaffected breast
9. Prostheses, bras and clothing after a mastectomy
10. Which operation should I have?
11. Surgery to the lymph nodes
12. Going into hospital and pre-assessment

1. Surgery for breast cancer treatment

Surgery is the first treatment for most people with breast cancer. 

The two main types of breast surgery are:

  • breast-conserving surgery: the cancer is removed along with a margin (border) of normal breast tissue
  • mastectomy: removal of all the breast tissue including the nipple area

Sometimes chemotherapyhormone therapy or targeted therapy is offered before surgery.

You can find out more about going into hospital for surgery in our booklet Your operation and recovery.

You can also download this simple summary to find out more about surgery for primary breast cancer.

2. Which type of surgery will I have?

The type of surgery recommended for you depends on the type and size of the cancer, where it is in the breast and whether more than one area of the breast is affected. It will also depend on the size of your breast.

Your specialist team will explain why they think a particular operation is best for you.

You may also have some or all of the lymph nodes removed with the breast tissue.

Find out more about the right surgery for you.

3. Breast-conserving surgery: lumpectomy or wide local excision

A lumpectomy or wide local excision is surgery to remove breast cancer along with a margin (border) of normal, healthy breast tissue.

The aim is to keep as much of your breast as possible while ensuring the cancer has been completely removed.

If you’re having breast-conserving surgery, you’ll usually have radiotherapy on the remaining breast tissue on that side.

image of wide local excision

4. Quadrantectomy

A far less common operation is a quadrantectomy, where around a quarter of the breast is removed. This is sometimes called a segmental excision. After a quadrantectomy the treated breast will usually be smaller due to the amount of tissue removed and it may also be misshapen.

It’s more common for people to have oncoplastic surgery. This combines breast cancer surgery with plastic surgery techniques, and means it’s less likely you’ll notice a dent or a great difference between the breasts. For more information, see our web pages about breast reconstruction.

5. Margins

It’s important that the cancer is removed with an area (margin) of healthy breast tissue around it to reduce the risk of any cancer cells being left behind.

The breast tissue removed during surgery will be tested to check the margin around the cancer.

  • Negative (clear) margins mean no cancer cells were seen at the outer edge of the tissue removed.
  • Positive margins mean the cancer cells are very close to or reach the edge of the tissue.

image of breast cancer margins

If you have negative or clear margins, it’s unlikely you’ll need more surgery to the breast.

If there are cancer cells at the edges of the margin, you may need further surgery to remove more tissue. Some people may need a mastectomy to ensure all the cancer has been removed.  

6. Mastectomy

A simple mastectomy is the removal of as much  breast tissue as possible , including the skin and nipple area.

Examples of when a mastectomy may be recommended include:

  • when the cancer takes up a large area of the breast
  • when there’s more than one area of cancer in the breast

image of mastectomy

If your surgeon recommends a mastectomy they should explain why. You may also decide you would prefer to have a mastectomy, even if breast-conserving surgery is an option.

7. Breast reconstruction

If you’re going to have a mastectomy, you will usually be given the option of having breast reconstruction.

If you choose to have breast reconstruction, you may be able to have it at the same time as the mastectomy. If this is the case your breast surgeon might discuss other types of mastectomy. A skin-sparing mastectomy is removal of the breast and nipple area without removing much of the overlying skin of the breast. A nipple-sparing mastectomy is removal of all the breast tissue, without removing much of the overlying skin and the nipple area of the breast.

8. The unaffected breast

Some women who are having a mastectomy wonder whether they should have their unaffected breast removed as well.

Evidence shows this is not usually necessary unless someone has a higher risk of developing primary breast cancer in the other side. This might be because they have inherited an altered gene or several close relatives have had breast cancer or a related breast cancer.

Many women overestimate their risk of developing a new primary cancer in the other breast or mistakenly believe breast cancer can spread from one breast to the other. It’s important to discuss your individual situation with your surgeon.

9. Prostheses, bras and clothing after a mastectomy

You may like to read our information about:

10. Which operation should I have?

Some people will be offered a choice between breast-conserving surgery and a mastectomy.

Long-term survival is the same for breast-conserving surgery followed by radiotherapy as for mastectomy.

Studies show that women who have a wide local excision may be slightly more likely to have a local recurrence (where breast cancer returns in the same breast), which can be treated again. However, most people don’t have a recurrence.

Talk to someone

You may find it helpful to talk through your options with your breast care nurse.

Here are some questions you might want to ask your treatment team about your surgery.

  • What surgery will I need and why?
  • Where will the scars be?
  • What will my breast area look like after surgery?
  • What side effects can I expect?
  • How long will I take to recover?
  • Can I see photographs of people who have had breast surgery?
  • Can I see some breast prostheses (artificial breast forms)?

You can also call Breast Cancer Now’s Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

11. Surgery to the lymph nodes

Breast cancer cells can sometimes spread to the lymph nodes under the arm.

Anyone with invasive breast cancer will have the lymph nodes under the arm assessed. The outcome of this will help the treatment team recommend which treatments are best for you.

The lymph nodes

Breasts contain a network of tiny tubes called lymph vessels. These drain into the lymph nodes (glands) under the arm (axilla).

Lymph nodes are arranged in three levels (1, 2 and 3 – as illustrated below). The exact number of nodes in each level will vary from person to person.

diagram of the lymph nodes

Checking lymph nodes before surgery

If you have invasive breast cancer, your treatment team will want to check if any of the lymph nodes under the arm contain cancer cells. This helps them decide whether you’ll benefit from any additional treatment after surgery.

Usually an ultrasound scan of the underarm is done before surgery to assess the lymph nodes.

If this appears abnormal, you’ll have a fine needle aspiration (FNA) or a core biopsy to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. An FNA uses a fine needle and syringe to take a sample of cells to be looked at under a microscope. A core biopsy uses a hollow needle to take a sample of tissue for analysis under a microscope.

Lymph node removal

If the FNA or core biopsy shows cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, you’ll usually be recommended to have all or most of your lymph nodes removed. This will be done at the same time as your breast surgery and is known as an axillary clearance.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy

Even if the tests before surgery show no evidence of the lymph nodes containing cancer cells, you will usually still need to have a sample of the lymph nodes removed to confirm this. This is known as axillary sampling.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is widely used for axillary sampling. It identifies whether the sentinel lymph node (the first lymph node that the cancer cells are most likely to spread to) is clear of cancer cells. There may be more than one sentinel lymph node.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is usually carried out at the same time as your cancer surgery but may be done before.

A small amount of radioactive material (radioisotope) and a dye is injected into the area around the cancer to identify the sentinel lymph node. Once removed, the sentinel node is examined under a microscope to see if it contains any cancer cells.

As the dye leaves your body, you may notice your urine is a bluish-green colour for one or two days after the procedure. The skin around the biopsy site may also be stained a blue-green colour. Some people may have a reaction to the dye but this is rare and is easily treated if necessary.

If the sentinel node does not contain cancer cells, this means the other nodes are clear too, so no more will need to be removed.

If the results show there are cancer cells in the sentinel node, depending on how much is found you may be recommended to have:

  • further surgery to remove some or all of the remaining lymph nodes
  • radiotherapy to the underarm
  • no further treatment to the underarm as long as you are having radiotherapy to the breast and chemotherapy or hormone therapy treatment

If you’re having chemotherapy before your surgery, your specialist may want you to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy before starting chemotherapy. This can help with planning any further treatment to the underarm after chemotherapy.

If you have DCIS you will only need a sentinel lymph node biopsy if you are having a mastectomy, or if there is a high chance you have some invasive breast cancer.

Isolated tumour cells (ITCs), micrometastases and macrometastases

Your doctor may use one of these terms when discussing your sentinel lymph node biopsy result.

  • ITCs are single cancer cells or small clusters of cells no bigger than 0.2mm.
  • Micrometastases are cancer cells larger than 0.2mm but not bigger than 2mm.
  • Macrometastases are cancer cells larger than 2mm.

If you’re diagnosed with ITCs or micrometastases, you will not usually need any further treatment to your axilla (under the arm).

If you have one or two sentinel nodes with macrometastases, you may or may not need further treatment to your axilla. This will depend on several factors including other characteristics of the cancer, for example what the grade is and whether you’re having hormone therapy. Your doctors may talk about going into a clinical trial that is comparing treating versus not treating the axilla.

If you have three or more sentinel nodes with macrometastases, you will need further treatment to the axilla.

Assessing lymph nodes during surgery

Some hospitals are set up to assess the lymph nodes during breast surgery. The removed nodes will be looked at by a pathologist, who will tell the surgeon the result during the operation.

If the sentinel node(s) contains cancer cells, the surgeon may then remove more lymph nodes. Having lymph nodes assessed during surgery avoids a second operation. The most common test used is called One Step Nucleic Acid Amplification (OSNA).

12. Going into hospital and pre-assessment

Going into hospital may be a new experience for you and you might feel anxious, particularly if you’re not sure what to expect. The following information might help you to prepare.

You might also find it helpful to download our booklet Your operation and recovery, which has more information about your admission to hospital, during your stay and your recovery at home.


Before your operation you will have a pre-assessment. This is to check your overall health and go through your planned surgery. You’ll usually be asked to attend a pre-assessment clinic shortly before your surgery date, but sometimes this assessment is done once you’re in hospital for your operation.

The assessment may involve a number of tests including a chest x-ray, an electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood tests. The time taken to do these may delay your surgery for a short while. Although you might feel anxious about any delay, it shouldn’t make a difference to the outcome of your treatment.

The nurse will explain the procedure that you will be having. This is a good opportunity to ask any questions and make sure you understand everything.

They will also discuss whether you will need to have an injection of radioactive dye before the operation – this is used if you’re having a procedure known as a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

You’ll be asked about any medication you're taking, and any allergies you have. If you smoke, you may be asked to try to cut down or stop smoking to help your recovery from the anaesthetic and surgery.

What should I take with me to hospital?

Your hospital team should provide you with information about your admission and hospital stay as well as what to take with you. We’ve made some suggestions of what to take in our booklet Your operation and recovery, including what clothes and bra to wear after your surgery.

You will usually be given a telephone number at your pre-assessment appointment that you can call if you have any questions about preparing for surgery, or are unclear about any instructions you have been given (such as stopping eating and drinking).

How long will I be in hospital?

The length of your hospital stay will depend on what type of surgery you have, how you recover and the support available at home.

Some people who've had breast surgery without reconstruction are discharged from hospital within 23 hours. This means you may have your surgery as a day case or stay overnight, being discharged within 23 hours of admission.

In such cases some people might still have wound drains in place. Your treatment team will talk to you about how long you’ll be in hospital.

What to expect on the day

You will usually be admitted to the hospital on the morning of your operation or occasionally the day before. There’s a brief explanation below of what will happen on the day of your surgery – for more detailed information, see our booklet Your operation and recovery.

A doctor from the surgical team will talk to you about your operation and discuss what has been planned. If you’ve not already signed a consent form, you’ll be asked for your written consent. This confirms that you understand the benefits and risks of your surgery, and what you are agreeing to. If you’re unsure, don’t be afraid to ask the doctor to explain further.

Your anaesthetist will also usually visit you on the ward before your surgery. If you’re feeling anxious and would like some medication to relax you before the operation, you can ask the anaesthetist.

Once all the pre-surgery checks have been done, you’ll be taken to the anaesthetic room where the theatre staff will confirm your name, any allergies and when you last ate and drank. You’ll be given a combination of drugs (usually anaesthetic, pain relief and anti-sickness drugs) into a vein (intravenously).

You’ll usually be asked to take deep breaths and as the anaesthetic takes effect you will fall into a deep sleep. Once you are fully anaesthetised you will be taken into the theatre.

For more information about going into hospital, see our booklet Your operation and recovery.

Read about what to expect after surgery »

Temporary breast prostheses and post-surgery bras

Find out more about which bras to wear immediately after surgery.

You can also find out more about wearing a temporary breast prosthesis if you’ve not had immediate reconstruction. Find out more about temporary breast prostheses

Breast reconstruction

Read about reconstructive surgery and what this means for you.

Last reviewed: December 2018
Next planned review begins 2021

Your feedback