What Is a Lumpectomy? A Breast Cancer Surgeon Explains

“The goal of lumpectomy surgery is to take the cancer out and do the safest operation that we can."

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“Most women [who] are diagnosed with breast cancer will have surgery at some point during their treatment,” says Jaime Alberty-Oller, MD, breast cancer oncologist and surgeon at the Dubin Breast Center of the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Surgery for breast cancer can help remove the tumor, but it can also help prevent cancer from coming back in the future. Mastectomies—or a total removal of the breast or breasts—are commonly associated with breast cancer treatment, but there's also a type of breast cancer surgery called a lumpectomy.

What to Know About Lumpectomy Surgery

Lumpectomies are a type of breast surgery where, instead of removing all of the breast tissue, 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.

"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 side effects of a lumpectomy may include pain, a scar or dimple where the tumor was removed, and sometimes lymphedema, which is swelling in the arm.

It's also important to know that after a lumpectomy, most women will have radiation therapy. Some women may also get other treatments, such as chemotherapy or hormone therapy. 

After the surgery, the tissue is 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. Learn more about what to expect after a lumpectomy here

Not every woman with breast cancer is a good candidate for lumpectomy. For example, women with larger tumors, several tumors throughout the breast, or who are unable to receive radation therapy, may be a better fit for a mastectomy instead. It's important for women to talk to their doctor to learn if lumpectomy surgery is right for them. 

Some people may be interested in a mastectomy because they just want the cancer and/or the breasts gone, but if you are a candidate for a lumpectomy, getting a mastectomy has not been shown to be more effective in preventing recurrence, according to Dr. Alberty-Oller. "There are clear differences between both surgeries, in terms of recurrence, cosmesis, how it’s going to make them look, how it’s going to make them feel," says Dr. Alberty-Oller. "It’s important for them to know that we have studied this at length…and choosing a lumpectomy in most cases, over a mastectomy will not be better or worse in terms of overall survival."