An operation is performed to take out the original tumor and attempt to remove as much of the cancer as possible. The extent of the surgery depends on how early the cancer is detected and how far it has spread.
This type of operation is performed to remove the tumor and some tissue around the tumor but not the entire breast. A lumpectomy is one of the most common examples and consists of removal of the breast tumor and some healthy tissue surrounding the tumor. This type of surgery is the most conservative and saves as much of the breast as possible. During this operation, some lymph nodes under the arm may also be removed; this is referred to as an axillary node dissection. Usually, breast-sparing surgeries are followed by radiation therapy to remove any cancerous cells that may have been left behind.
A mastectomy is the surgical removal of the affected breast and can either be a simple mastectomy or a modified radical mastectomy. During a simple mastectomy only the breast tissue is removed, and not the lymph nodes under the arm. A modified radical mastectomy is the removal of all the breast tissue plus some underarm lymph nodes. The modified radical mastectomy is more prone to post-surgical complications, such as lymphedema (arm swelling), which is discussed under "Common side effects associated with cancer treatment."
Sentinel node biopsy
This is a new procedure where doctors check for cancer in the lymph nodes before removing them. It results in fewer lymph nodes removed, which also leads to a decrease in the complications experienced.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. It can be used either before surgery to shrink the tumor, or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells. The area that is being treated depends on the size of the tumor and the spread of the cancer; the aim is to avoid damaging any healthy tissue.
External radiation therapy
This type of radiation is given by a machine usually at a hospital or clinic. The X-rays are carefully directed at the tumor and the treatments are usually given 5 days a week for several weeks. Each treatment session lasts about 30 minutes.
Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy)
Thin plastic tubes containing radioactive seeds are placed directly in the breast to deliver more local and precisely targeted radiation. A woman stays in the hospital for several days while the tubes are in place, and then the tubes are removed before she goes home.