Introduction 

A mastectomy is an operation to remove the breast.

It's used to treat breast cancer in women or breast cancer in men. It can also be used to reduce the risk of cancer developing in the breast.

If your GP refers you urgently because they think you have cancer, you have the right to be seen by a specialist within two weeks. Read more about NHS waiting times for treatment and why mastectomies are used.

In 2012-13, just under 23,200 mastectomies were carried out in England.

Preparing for a mastectomy

Before having a mastectomy, you'll have the opportunity to discuss the operation with a specialist nurse or surgeon. You can discuss how the procedure might affect you both physically and emotionally.

A specialist nurse can give you practical advice about bras and prostheses (bra inserts), if you need them. Your surgeon will discuss the type of mastectomy you'll have, possible complications and the option of breast reconstruction (see below).

If you're currently taking any medicines, find out whether you should continue taking them before your operation. However, don't stop taking a prescribed medication unless advised to do so by a qualified healthcare professional responsible for your care.

If you smoke, you may be advised to stop smoking before your operation. Smoking can increase the risk of complications during and after your operation, which may increase your recovery time.

There are several different types of mastectomy. The type recommended for you will depend on factors such as how much the cancer has spread. All types of mastectomy use general anaesthetic and involve making a cut (incision) either diagonally or horizontally across your breast so that the breast tissue can be removed.

Before the operation, you may need to have chemotherapy or hormone therapy to reduce the size of any tumours.

Breast reconstruction

After your breast has been removed, you may choose to have a breast reconstruction. This involves creating an artificial breast to replace the breast or breasts that have been removed.

It's sometimes possible for a breast reconstruction to be carried out at the same time as a mastectomy, although it can be delayed until a later date if necessary.

Read more about how a mastectomy is performed.

After surgery

Mastectomies are very safe procedures, with minimal complications. Most people make a good recovery and only need to stay in hospital for one night. However, some people will need to spend a few days in hospital. Generally, it takes three and six weeks to fully recover.

During the early stages of recovery, you may have tubes coming from the wound. These are used to drain away blood and fluids to help prevent swelling or infection. Your scar and stitches will be covered with a dressing.

It's common to experience pain, numbness, tingling and swelling after a mastectomy, but painkillers should provide some relief.

In rare cases, more serious complications can develop following a mastectomy, including infection of the wound and delayed healing.

Read more about recovering from a mastectomy and the possible complications of a mastectomy.

Breast cancer: Emma's story

Emma Duncan, 33, talks about her experience of having breast cancer.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Page last reviewed: 15/02/2015

Next review due: 15/02/2017