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A lumpectomy is a surgical procedure which involves removing a tumor from the tissue of the breast. After removal, the tumor is analyzed by a pathologist to ensure that no unhealthy cells were left behind, and radiation is typically recommended for the patient to ensure that cancerous cells do not return. This surgical procedure is sometimes referred to as “breast-conserving surgery,” in a reference to the fact that the entire breast is not removed, and depending on a patient's individual situation, it may or may not be offered as a treatment option after a breast cancer diagnosis.
The term “lumpectomy” is a bit disingenuous, as it implies that a small lump of tissue is removed. In fact, in addition to the tumor, the surgeon typically takes a large margin of seemingly healthy tissue as well, to ensure that all of the potentially dangerous cells are removed. Lymph nodes in the region are also removed, as they commonly contain cancerous cells as well; some surgeons refer to a lumpectomy is a “lymph node dissection,” in a reference to this.
In a patient with very early stage breast cancer, a lumpectomy may indeed be small. However, there are times when a surgeon needs to take much more tissue, and the shape of the breast could potentially be disfigured. For some people, partial disfigurement is preferable to complete removal of the breast, although reconstructive surgery can be used in either case to restore the breast to a relatively normal looking state, if desired.
A lumpectomy is also not the end of the treatment; most doctors will recommend frequent radiation after a lumpectomy as well. This is an important thing to consider when thinking about a lumpectomy, as the radiation may take place as often as every day, and this can get very grueling. It is also important to engage in preventative care including regular mammograms and breast exams after a lumpectomy, to ensure that the cancer has not returned. In all cases, make yourself an informed patient before you make a decision: ask a lot of questions, do lots of research, and take advantage of local cancer resource centers to get additional information about your options, support during treatment, and the difficulties you may face.
Lumpectomies are not an option for all patients. Patients who have experienced previous cancers may need to get a mastectomy, which involves the removal of all of the breast tissue. Some cancers are also too aggressive for lumpectomies to be safe, especially if the cancer is caught late. In any case, you should always discuss treatment options carefully with a surgeon before proceeding, and ask for an estimate of how much tissue may be removed from your breast, to ensure that you are prepared for the way you might look after surgery. Be aware that surgeons can sometimes discover unique situations once they actually open up the surgical site, and they may take more or less tissue than expected, or they may stop the surgery altogether and ask you to consider other treatment options.