What to Expect After a Lumpectomy for Breast Cancer

Here’s how many days you should set aside for recovery.

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Surgery is just one treatment option for breast cancer, but it’s a common one: “Most people I diagnose with breast cancer will have surgery at some point during their treatment,” says Jaime Alberty-Oller, MD, breast cancer oncologist and surgeon at Dubin Breast Center, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

It’s common for women to have many questions when a lumpectomy for breast cancer is recommended, according to Dr. Alberty-Oller. Many women are curious about how the surgery treats the cancer, how the breasts will look afterward, and the expected recovery time.

What Is a Lumpectomy? 

Lumpectomies are a type of breast surgery where, instead of removing all of the breast tissue (called a mastectomy), a portion of the breast is removed. The surgeon will remove the cancer, as well as a rim of normal tissue surrounding it, which is called the margin. A lumpectomy may also be called breast-conserving surgery, quadrantectomy, partial mastectomy, or segmental mastectomy. Learn more about types of breast cancer surgery here.

“The goal of lumpectomy surgery is to take the cancer out and do the safest operation that we can," says Dr. Alberty Oller. The amount of breast tissue that's removed during a lumpectomy depends on the size and location of the tumor, your breast size, and other factors.

Lumpectomy Surgery: What to Expect

Knowing what to expect is important—especially since there are many myths about surgery for breast cancer. Here are some things you can expect after a lumpectomy for breast cancer:

Appearance: How a woman's breast looks after a lumpectomy depends on many factors—every woman is different. "When you decide if a patient is a candidate for a lumpectomy, the most important thing that you are looking at is what we call breast-to-tumor ratio," says Dr. Alberty-Oller. "You’re looking at the size of the breast and the size of the cancer. If you excise that cancer, is the breast going to look OK once you close it back up. If there is a small breast and a large cancer, and you excise that, sometimes the breast will not look the same."

"The majority of patients that have very small cancers are very good lumpectomy candidates and their breasts will look pretty much the same as they did before surgery," says Dr. Alberty-Oller.

Additional therapies. "When we talk about lumpectomy, usually it’s married with the idea of getting postoperative radiation," says Dr. Alberty-Oller. Some women may also get other treatments, such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy. After a lumpectomy, the tissue that's removed will also be examined under a microscope by a pathologist to look for evidence of cancer. If cancer cells are present in the margin, the surgeon may recommend additional surgery.

Recovery: Typically, patients undergoing a lumpectomy recover faster than those undergoing a mastectomy. Lumpectomies are often outpatient procedures, meaning an overnight stay in the hospital is usually not necessary. Most women may be able to return to their normal activities within two weeks, but others may need more time. Check out this simple stretch to improve mobility after breast cancer surgery.

Side effects: Common side effects after a lumpectomy may include:

  • Pain, tenderness, or swelling of the breast
  • Changes in size or shape of the breast
  • Scars or dimples
  • Numbness or neuropathy
  • Collections of fluid or blood
  • If lymph nodes are removed, lymphedema (swelling of the arms or back) may also occur

After care: After the surgery, you and your caregivers will get written instructions about how to care for your surgery site and affected arm. This will include things like how to care for site and dressing, how to bathe, when to call the doctor, how to recognize signs of infection, and how and when you can start resuming normal activities.

Clothing: The recovery time may require you to dress a little differently. For example, it’s recommended to wear sports bras during your recovery since they can provide more support (to prevent uncomfortable movement or bouncing) and control swelling. Here are tips for what to wear after breast cancer surgery.

Exercise: It’s recommended to avoid exercise for at least a week or more. Follow up with your surgeon before engaging in exercise after a lumpectomy. “Proceed with caution. We don’t want them to bleed into their lumpectomy cavities,” says Dr. Alberty-Oller.

Body image: Breast cancer, and breast cancer treatment, can take a toll on a woman’s body image. Some women may see their scars as a symbol of beating cancer, but others do not. For many women, breast surgery scars impact their self-confidence, intimacy, and body image, which can significantly affect their quality of life. Find out here how breast cancer survivors adjusted to their new normal.

Depending on the cancer and surgery, many women may opt to reconstruct after breast surgery or choose hidden scar surgery. Women should discuss these options with their doctor before undergoing lumpectomy. Learn why these women chose to reconstruct after breast cancer surgery.

To know exactly what to expect after your breast cancer surgery, it's important to talk to your doctor.