Throughout your adolescent and adult years, you may have felt your breasts were a symbol of your womanhood. You may feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or frightened listening to your physician discuss disfiguring or removing one or both breasts entirely. Deciding which procedure to undergo wreaks havoc on your emotions, often raising a lot of fear and doubt about the surgical process. If you are not given a choice, however, these doubts multiply exponentially. Having a better understanding of what to expect can help.

There are several types of surgery and your physician will often tell you the preferred treatment for YOUR diagnosis:

  • Lumpectomy
  • Partial, Simple or Total Mastectomy

Before Breast Surgery

Plan to meet with your surgeon a few days or even weeks before the operation to discuss his/her recommended procedure and go over the potential risks. If you have options available to you—lumpectomy or mastectomy for example—try to meet as far in advance as you can. This will give you some breathing time. If you think you may want to consider breast reconstruction  at some point, be sure to ask your surgeon about your options now, as it can impact the procedure you choose.

You will sign a consent form, giving the physician permission to perform the surgery. Though it may be necessary to your survival, no physician will perform the surgery against your consent. The hospital will frequently also ask you to sign a consent form to use any leftover tissue or blood, which wasn’t necessary for diagnosis, for future research. Finally, you will meet with the anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist, who will administer the anesthesia (medicine to make you sleep through the surgery).

During Breast Surgery

Cancer removal is major surgery, and all precautions will be taken to ensure your well-being. The medical team will put in an intravenous (IV) line, by which you will receive medicine for the surgery and recovery. You will most likely be hooked up to an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine, as well as a blood pressure monitor, so your medical team can monitor your heart rhythm and blood pressure throughout the surgery. General anesthesia is used for most breast surgery, assuring that you will be sound asleep and unaware of the procedures taking place. The length of the operation depends on the type of surgery being done.

Nikki, a Nurse Practitioner and Surgical Team Assistant, describes the process in an open letter,

“Today is the day. I am a member of the surgical team who will take care of you — the team that will remove your breast to treat the cancer that has tried to make a home in your body. We all have our role today, and the world would see yours to be the “patient.” I see it as something more: a powerful gift to us.

Because you remind us why we do what we do.

…We carefully remove your breast. It never gets easy to see or to do. You must know this. It never feels natural, it never feels cavalier. It feels sacred to me. Every. Single. Time.

I saw you today.

You are beautiful.

You are strong.

Thank you for entrusting me and my colleagues with your most intimate moments. I am honored to be a witness to this phase of your life.”

After Breast Surgery

After your surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room, where you will stay until you wake up and your condition and vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, and breathing) are stable. Decisions regarding the length of your stay should be made by you and your physician. Usually, women having a mastectomy will stay in the hospital for one to two days.  Lumpectomies, on the other hand, are usually done on an out-patient basis.


Will There Be a Lot of Pain?

Breast cancer surgery is major surgery, and there will be a recovery time, during which you will experience pain. Thankfully, though, your physicians will give you medication to help you get through this time. For some women, the pain is worse than others. That’s why it is important to talk to your physician about any pain you are having and ask you physician in advance what should be expected for your specific surgery.

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