A guide to the mastectomy procedure

A breast cancer diagnosis is something no one wants to receive. Dealing with any form of cancer can be overwhelming, but a breast cancer diagnosis can be particularly challenging, especially when physicians recommend mastectomy to their patients.

The Mayo Clinic notes that mastectomy is an umbrella term used to describe several different procedures. While it’s largely thought of as removing one or both breasts, mastectomy may also refer to removing lymph nodes under the arms.

Lumpectomy is another word that may come up when physicians discusss treatment options with patients who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Lumpectomies occur when a tumor and surrounding tissue is removed, but most of the breast is left intact.

For reasons that are not entirely understood, Susan G. Komen reports that rates of some types of mastectomies are on the rise. A unilateral mastectomy is the removal of one breast, and a bilateral mastectomy is the removal of both breasts. However, a woman may choose to have a healthy breast removed as a preventative measure, called a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy. Susan G. Komen says that rates of this have been steadily on the rise, and women choosing to undergo the procedure tend to be young and well educated.

Any mastectomy has its share of risks that women must weigh against the benefits. Doctors or nurses will explain the procedure before patients enter the operating room. Surgical plans may differ depending on whether a modified radical mastectomy, simple mastectomy, skin-sparing mastectomy, or nipple-sparing mastectomy will be performed. A mastectomy procedure typically lasts up to three hours, but it may take longer if reconstruction of the breast is part of the surgery.

Mastectomy is usually performed under general anesthesia, so patients will need to arrange for transportation home from the hospital. Many women find they can go home the same day of the procedure, though women should discuss their options with their physicians ahead of the surgery.

Incisions will be closed with sutures after the surgery is completed. In some cases, a plastic drainage tube will be inserted where the breast was removed. This tube helps clear away any fluids that accumulate after the surgery. Women may feel some pain, numbness, and pinching sensations in the surgical area. There will be a bandage over the site, and instructions will be given on caring for the wound and changing the dressing.

It’s important to keep in mind that some of side effects of mastectomy procedures are permanent and irreversible, whether or not a person undergoes reconstruction. Removing breast tissue eliminates the ducts that produce milk, so breastfeeding will not be possible after surgery. Also, the breast and much of the surrounding area may remain numb due to nerves that are severed when breast tissue is removed. How much sensation returns varies from woman to woman. Women can direct any questions they have regarding wearing bras or breast prosthetics to their surgical teams.

Mastectomy is a common treatment option for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Although mastectomy may seem scary, women can rest assured that many have been there before them and there is a wealth of information available to assuage their fears.

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