Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?
Read the stories of other women who have had to choose which surgery to have for their breast cancer treatment
Roughly 55,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in the UK each year, and many of the women diagnosed will ask themselves, ‘Lumpectomy or mastectomy, how to decide?’
Early detection has implications for surgical options, since most of these women will have surgery as part of their treatment. This means the vast majority of newly diagnosed breast cancer patients are likely candidates for breast-conserving surgery or lumpectomy, the least invasive surgical option.
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: A Timeline
Until a quarter of a century ago, a mastectomy was the only surgery option, so nobody had to decide between lumpectomy or mastectomy. Mastectomies were first performed in the UK in the early 1900s. Up until the 1970s, most women underwent radical mastectomies – a dramatic procedure that removes the breast tissue, nipple and areola, as well as the underarm lymph nodes and chest wall muscles on the affected side.
The modified radical mastectomy, introduced in the 1960s, reduced the extent of the mastectomy to only the breast area and lymph nodes with minimal impact on the chest muscles. The modified radical mastectomy is the most common type of mastectomy performed today and – particularly when a woman is not able to have breast-conserving surgery, is the usual solution to the question ‘lumpectomy or mastectomy, how to decide?’
A lumpectomy procedure consists of removing only the lump and surrounding area, preserving the majority of the breast. The 1980s brought considerable advances in lumpectomies and other forms of breast-conserving surgery, and today just over half of all women in the UK who have breast cancer surgery opt for lumpectomy.
Lumpectomies typically require 5 to 7 weeks of radiotherapy following surgery, in order to ensure that all cancerous cells are treated, which can be a factor when wondering how to decide between lumpectomy and mastectomy.
Research has shown that the combination of lumpectomy plus radiotherapy has equal long-term survival rates as a mastectomy, which is reassuring.
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: An Overview
Even with equal results, though, half of breast cancer patients who are eligible for a lumpectomy undergo a mastectomy instead. Why and how do they make that lumpectomy or mastectomy decision?
Studies over the past 20 years have shown several key factors influencing the use of mastectomy over lumpectomy/radiotherapy, including:
- The physician encourages it. Older surgeons are particularly more likely to recommend a mastectomy because a lumpectomy is a more recent procedure, so they tend to choose an approach they know and are familiar with: for them it’s the best solution to ‘lumpectomy or mastectomy, how to decide?’
- Where a patient lives. There have always been regional differences in new treatments, although this is less prevalent than it was five years ago.
- The type or stage of your cancer, or your general state of health.
- Older women (70 years and older) tend to not question their doctors compared to younger generations. Also, breast loss is often of more of a concern among younger women, so they typically have to figure out how to decide between lumpectomy or mastectomy – more so than older women.
- Psychological well-being. There are a number of women who feel safer having their breasts removed to assure there will be no recurrence of cancer.
Although these major drivers promote mastectomies, lumpectomies are increasingly the preferred option today. For the most part, women choose lumpectomy over mastectomy in order to preserve their natural breasts as long as they can, and ultimately it comes down to a woman’s personal choice. Such is the case with the following breast cancer survivors, who were eligible for either surgical option and chose one over the other.
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: Kim
Kim, 48 years old, who is celebrating her 10th year of being cancer-free, is a third generation survivor. Her grandmother had a radical mastectomy in 1958, and mother underwent a modified radical mastectomy in 1978. Almost 20 years later, Kim opted for a lumpectomy. “Although I was OK with removing my breast if I had to, it was really cool waking up [after surgery] and having some of my breast left on my chest.”
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: Libby
Libby also chose a lumpectomy. “We were assured that since I had such early stage breast cancer a lumpectomy would be completely sufficient to get rid of all of the cancer. Ironically, I had to go back three days after my original lumpectomy to have more removed because my surgeon didn’t feel, based on the returned lab report, that she had got enough of a margin.
“I must say that was a bit traumatic for me and my husband, but we knew we were in good hands, so that made it a bit easier to handle. It was three years this past January since my diagnosis and treatment and I’m fortunate enough to say that I have had no further problems and remain cancer-free. And every day of life now is the greatest gift.”
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: Kathy
Kathy still feels good with her lumpectomy decision. “After doing as much reading and research as I was able to find, I moved on to talk with my doctor, with friends—some of whom had lumpectomies and others who had complete mastectomies—and also healthcare team. In everything I was able to discover with my kind of cancer and tumour, there was no research that indicated any significant benefit to have a mastectomy. I felt, and still do feel, very comfortable with my decision.”
‘Lumpectomy or Mastectomy, How to Decide?’: Lynn
Lynn, on the other hand, chose a mastectomy. “I was diagnosed with DCIS, non- invasive cancer. The lumpectomy would have removed 20-30% of the breast tissue because of the location near the middle and at the back near the breast plate. There would be no guarantee that future lumpectomies would not be required in other areas, as the entire breast showed clusters of calcification.
“I decided on a mastectomy in order to have reconstruction with minimal scarring. A series of lumpectomies would have made a future reconstruction difficult in my case. This turned out to be the best decision for me, since DCIS was found in other areas and I would have lost this breast anyway.
“I have had excellent treatment and no problems with either surgery (mastectomy and reconstruction).”