When lumps are detected in the breast, they may be either benign or malignant (cancerous). If they are cancerous, a lumpectomy (excising the lump) or mastectomy (removing the entire breast) may be the recommended course of treatment.

The best case scenario is to do regular breast self-exams in addition to those done annually by a healthcare provider, whether that’s your gynecologist or primary care physician. You should also go for mammograms on a schedule that your doctor recommends. (The starting age and frequency may vary depending on family history and other factors.)

When breast lumps are discovered early, they are generally much more treatable. And, not all breast lumps turn out to be malignant. But, finding it early and performing a biopsy to determine the nature of the lump can lead to better outcomes.

Breast biopsies

Generally, the first diagnostic step is a needle biopsy. This involves a small incision and the removal of cells from the lump. This will tell the doctor whether the lump contains fluid or solid tissue. If it contains solid tissue, then it will be evaluated by a pathologist to determine if it’s benign or malignant. From there, a treatment plan will be created.

Lumpectomy

If the lump is small enough and tests have determined that the cancer hasn’t spread too widely, your surgeon may be able to excise the lump itself and possibly any axillary (underarm) lymph nodes in order to remove all affected cells. Radiation may follow and sometimes chemotherapy as well.

Mastectomy

A more advanced form of cancer that has impacted more tissue may require a mastectomy. This is the complete removal of the breast. During a mastectomy, the breast tissue and axillary lymph nodes are removed. The chest muscle is left in place. Following surgery, reconstruction of the breast may be an option. A mastectomy may eliminate the need for radiation, but not always.

Working with your surgeon

Breast cancer is a unique phenomenon in each patient. Your recommended course of treatment will be tailored to your health, the stage of the cancer, family history and other factors. Please discuss all options and expectations with your surgeon, so you can prepare for surgery and recovery.