In its simplest form, breast cancer is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the tissues of the breast. These malignant cells, which can spread from their origin throughout the entire body, grow and multiply in a disorderly fashion, leading to the growth of tumors. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer women face, affecting one out of every eight women in their lifetime, and while it affects both men and women, it is far more common in women. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and 40,000 of those diagnosed lose their life to the disease annually; on average, men are diagnosed with breast cancer at one-tenth that rate.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and are moving forward with a surgical intervention, there are probably a million questions swirling around in your mind. Chances are, you and your surgeon have elected to move forward with one of the two most common surgical procedures for treating breast cancer: a mastectomy, in which the entire breast, including skin and nipple, will be removed, or a lumpectomy, which aims to conserve a majority of the breast tissue by only targeting the cancerous lump in question for removal. In either case, there are some things you should know to better prepare for your procedure. To that end, we have outlined five of the most important questions to ask your surgeon below.
- When will I find out the results of my surgery? One of the most important questions for which patients want an immediate answer is whether or not their surgery was a success. It is important to understand that this question will be answered in two parts. First, when the surgeon wraps your case, he will have a strong impression of how it went that should be relayed to you in the post-operative acute care setting, where you will be recovering from surgery and anesthesia. Second, tissue excised from your breast will be immediately sent to the lab for analysis by a pathologist. These tests can take up to a week to complete, so don’t expect immediate results; typically, your surgeon will share these in a follow-up appointment or phone call. Either way, it is very important for you to understand when you can expect to get the full picture of your prognosis following surgery.
- What will my recovery look like? Planning for surgery is a major undertaking. You need to coordinate assistance in the home, cover any personal or professional obligations you might have, and ensure you understand what to expect so as to mentally prepare. Therefore, it is critically important that you ask your surgeon what to expect during the recovery process so that you can adequately prepare yourself and your social network.
- Will I need any other treatments? Depending on which surgical procedure you elect to undergo, you may have additional treatments in your near future. A mastectomy usually does not require additional treatment right off the bat, while a lumpectomy is generally followed up with radiation or chemotherapy quickly after surgery to ensure all of the cancerous tissue is eliminated. Both for the purposes of planning and preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for any additional treatment, it is critically important that you fully understand what to expect through the entire course of your treatment, so ask!
- What are my options for reconstruction? Many people elect to have a reconstructive procedure following surgical treatment for breast cancer. Even a lumpectomy, which is generally regarded as a breast-saving procedure, can sometimes require enough tissue removal that the breast is subjected to changes in appearance that patients want corrected. Understanding the available options for reconstruction can also play a critical role in deciding whether or not a patient elects a mastectomy or lumpectomy, so this question is important to ask during the decision-making process, as well as in the run-up to surgery.
- What surgery do you suggest for me? Understanding your surgeons recommendations on how to treat your breast cancer are vitally important to making the right decision about your care. Oftentimes, choosing which surgery to move forward with can be incredibly difficult. Breasts, with the vital role they play in motherhood, are a central pillar in the female identity for some patients, which makes mastectomies seem unfathomable. Therefore, it is important to understand from a clinical perspective what your surgeon believes is the best course of treatment, so you can incorporate their expertise into your decision.
Regardless of which treatment plan you and your medical team elect, it is very important that you be fully informed on and prepared for what is to come. Understanding what to expect—and not to expect—through the surgery and recovery process can help smooth the post-operative transition for you and your social network, and ultimately improve outcomes.