A mastectomy may be recommended when


  • Cancer is found in more than one part of the breast.
  • The breast is small or shaped so that a lumpectomy would leave little breast tissue or a very deformed breast.
  • A woman chooses not to have radiation therapy.
  • A woman prefers a mastectomy.

Total (or simple) mastectomy

The surgeon removes the entire breast. Some lymph nodes under the arm may be removed, also.

Modified radical mastectomy

The surgeon removes the breast, some of the lymph nodes under the arm, and the lining over the chest muscles, and sometimes part of the chest wall muscles.

Radical mastectomy

The surgeon removes the breast, chest muscles, and all the lymph nodes under the arm. This was the standard operation for many years, but it is used now only when a tumor has spread to the chest muscles.

Possible problems following a mastectomy

As in any kind of surgery, there is a risk of infection, poor wound healing, bleeding, or a reaction to the anesthesia used in surgery. There may be a collection of fluid under the skin; or tingling, numbness, stiffness, weakness, or swelling of the arm. Physical therapy and exercise can help to restore arm movement and strength.

Source: Understanding Breast Cancer Treatment: A Guide for Patients. NCI Booklet (No. 98-4251). Illustrations: Susan Sprangler.

Recommendations and resources

  1. For information on preparing for a mastectomy and taking care of yourself afterward, the Breast Care Center staff developed these recommendations.
  2. To promote healing, download and follow the exercise instructions for before and after a modified radical mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection.
  3. For breast forms, bras, and many other post-surgical products, a good resource is the Friend to Friend shop located at UCSF Mission Bay:
  • Friend to Friend Shop

    Bakar Precision Cancer Medicine Building
    1825 Fourth Street, Lobby, Room M1220
    (415) 353-7776 option 2
    Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm

    • Appointments preferred but not required
    • Funding for low income patients who qualify
    • Nurturing staff and supportive environment

These recommendations and instructions are intended to supplement, not replace the advice of your health care providers.