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What is a Mastectomy?

Published on | Kylie Chin

Mastectomy is a surgical procedure for breast cancer that involves removing malignant tissues of the breast. Depending on the type of mastectomy performed, the entire breast may be removed along with the axillary lymph node (underarm) to keep cancer from spreading to other areas of the body. A double mastectomy, or the removal of both breasts, is sometimes performed even when the breast is healthy as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of cancer resurgence.

The American Cancer Society reports that breast cancer is the second leading cause of death for women other than lung cancer. In 2014, the organization estimates that more than 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will emerge in the U.S. This makes the odds of developing breast cancer about one in eight.

Types of Mastectomy Procedures

There are five types of mastectomy operations: partial mastectomy, simple (or total) mastectomy, radical mastectomy, modified radical mastectomy, and subcutaneous mastectomy.

  • Partial Mastectomy—A surgeon only removes the breast tumor and small portions of surrounding healthy tissue. Similar to a lumpectomy where only the lump and small portions of tissue are removed, this procedure generally involves removing slightly larger portions of breast tissue.
  • Simple” or “Total” Mastectomy—A surgeon removes the entire breast including the nipple and areola without performing axillary lymph node dissection (removal of lymph nodes).
  • Radical Mastectomy—A surgeon removes the entire breast, nipple, areola, axillary lymph nodes in the armpit, as well as primary chest muscles (such as the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor).
  • Modified Radical Mastectomy—A surgeon removes the entire breast, nipple, areola, most axillary lymph nodes, and the lining over the pectoralis major.
  • Subcutaneous or “Nipple-Sparing” Mastectomy—A surgeon only removes breast tissue while leaving the nipple area intact.

The type of mastectomy performed depends on many factors such as:

  • Age
  • Overall health
  • Menopausal condition (if applicable)
  • Size of tumor
  • Type of tumor (how aggressive)
  • Stage of metastasis (how far the cancer spread)
  • Hormone receptor status
  • Condition of lymph nodes

Reconstructive Options for Post-Mastectomy Patients

Some women may decide to have reconstructive surgery as a breast-replacement option after a mastectomy. This procedure can be performed during the mastectomy or sometime thereafter. Because the nipple is spared, subcutaneous mastectomies are especially conducive for breast reconstruction.

Breast prosthesis (silicone forms in the shape of a natural breast) is an alternative option for women who choose not to have reconstructive surgery. With this option, a special mastectomy bra is used to hold the prosthesis in place and helps reconstruct the natural symmetry of a woman’s breast.

To further restore the natural look, some tattoo artists are even offering free nipple tattoos for women who have undergone mastectomies.

Don’t forget about Hollywood

Several well-known celebrities have undergone breast cancer operations in recent years and they are outspoken about their experiences. Angelina Jolie, Kathy Bates, and Sharon Osbourne publicly admitted to having a mastectomy as treatment for breast cancer.

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