Breast cancer


Breast cancer

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Surgery involves removing tissues or organs from the body. The type of surgery you have depends on your cancer. You may also hear surgery called an operation or a procedure.

Every operation is different. Ask your surgeon about what to expect.

What you need to know

Breast cancer surgery

The main purpose of surgery is to remove the cancer from the breast. This can be done using breast conserving surgery or a mastectomy.

Other types of surgery that are used in breast cancer patients include sentinel node biopsy, axillary dissection and breast reconstruction.

Breast conserving surgery

  • This is removing the tumour and some normal tissue around it but leaving most of the breast.
  • It is also called wide local excision or lumpectomy.
  • This type of surgery is only possible for some tumours.


  • This surgery involves removing the whole of the breast.
  • It is more common when the cancer is large.

Sentinel node biopsy

  • This is a procedure to identify the first lymph node that cancer cells might spread to.
  • A dye or radioactive marker is injected around the cancer and the first lymph node it reaches is removed.
  • This sentinel node is then tested for cancer cells.

Axillary dissection

  • This is surgery to remove lymph nodes from the axilla (armpit) in case the cancer has spread to them.
  • It can be done at the same time as a mastectomy or breast conserving surgery, or as a separate operation.
  • It is often done after a sentinel node biopsy that showed cancer cells in the node.

Breast reconstruction

  • This is surgery to replace a breast that has been removed.
  • It can be done at the same time as a mastectomy or at a later time.

Your surgeon will discuss with you when and where you can have your operation, and any costs involved. They will also give you instructions about what to do before your surgery and what to expect afterwards.

The surgical team

Health professionals who work as part of the surgical team include:

  • surgeon
  • anaesthetist
  • nurse
  • allied health professional.

What to ask or talk about

Side effects of breast cancer surgery

Your surgeon will discuss any risks of the surgery with you before your operation. Most hospitals will also give you written information about the surgery and who to contact if you have any concerns.

Surgical complications can include:

  • pain 
  • infection 
  • bleeding 
  • lymphoedema 
  • tiredness (fatigue)
  • loss of appetite 
  • blood clots 
  • shoulder stiffness 
  • emotional changes 
  • cording 
  • seroma .

The surgical team looking after you during and after your operation will take care to reduce your risk of side effects, and treat any that you get.

Every operation is different. Ask your surgeon about what to expect and see our checklist of questions to ask.

checklist Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Next steps

Preparing for surgery

Before surgery, you will need to sign a consent form. It is important you understand what you are consenting to and the possible risks of the surgery.

Some things you should know are:

  • whether you need to have tests and a preoperative assessment
  • whether you need to change or stop any medications, e.g. blood thinners like aspirin
  • when you have to stop eating and drinking
  • when you have to be there
  • whether you need time off work
  • whether you need someone to care for you at home after surgery (if you are having day surgery you will need someone to drive you home).
If you smoke, you should stop before any operation as your risk of complications from surgery is higher.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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