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Breast conserving surgery

Breast conserving surgery may also be called a lumpectomy, complete local excision, partial mastectomy or wide local excision.

Breast conserving surgery involves removing the breast cancer and a small amount of healthy tissue around it (called the surgical margin). Some women also have one or more lymph nodes removed from the armpit.

Breast conserving surgery is an option if the breast cancer is small enough compared to the size of the breast to allow removal of the cancer and some healthy tissue around it and still give an acceptable appearance.

Radiotherapy to the breast is usually recommended after breast conserving surgery. Sometimes radiotherapy is also given to lymph nodes in the armpit and/or lower neck.

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How long does breast conserving surgery take?

Breast conserving surgery usually takes up to one-and-a-half hours. There will also be preparation time and time to recover from the general anaesthetic. A woman could be hospital anywhere between 1 day and 1 week, depending on her individual situation.

What happens after breast conserving surgery?

After breast conserving surgery, a pathologist will look at the breast tissue and lymph nodes that have been removed. The results will help the woman and her doctors decide what other treatments are best. If there are cancer cells in the surgical margin around the breast cancer, the woman may need more surgery. For some women this may mean having a mastectomy.

What does breast conserving surgery look like?

After breast conserving surgery, there will be a scar on the breast. The scar will become less obvious with time. The size and shape of the breast is also likely to change. The position of the scar and the shape of the breast after surgery will depend on where the breast cancer is and how much breast tissue is removed.

In some cases, the shape and size of the breast may be different to the other breast and may affect symmetry. Some women choose to use an external breast prosthesis or have further surgery to improve symmetry (ie breast reconstruction or reducing the size of the other breast).

Find out more about: breast prostheses and breast reconstruction.

Side effects of breast conserving surgery

Everyone responds differently to breast conserving surgery. Some side effects happen to most people, others happen only occasionally. Some side effects happen straight after surgery, others take longer to develop. Most side effects can be reduced or managed with appropriate care.

Common side effects of breast conserving surgery:

  • pain, discomfort or numbness in the breast and/or armpit while the wounds are healing – this usually settles after a few weeks
  • bruising or swelling around the wound in the breast (or under the arm if lymph nodes have been removed)
  • stiffness in the arm or shoulder – it may be helpful to do some approved exercises after surgery
  • tingling in the arm or shoulder if lymph nodes have been removed – this may improve with time, but feeling in these areas may change permanently
  • fluid may collect in or around the scar in the breast or armpit – this is called a seroma and may need to be drained using a fine needle and a syringe; this can be done by a breast care nurse or another health professional in the clinic or by a GP
  • mild pain in the arm and/or armpit – this can last a year or more after surgery if lymph nodes have been removed.

Side effects that sometimes develop after breast conserving surgery:

  • if lymph nodes have been removed, there may be swelling in the arm, breast, hand or chest that lasts after the initial side effects of surgery are over; this is called lymphoedema and can develop a few months or years after surgery.

    Find out more about: lymphoedema.

Rare side effects of breast conserving surgery:

  • infection or bleeding in the scar in the breast or armpit; some women may need further surgery.