Modified Radical Mastectomy

When doctors treat breast cancer, their goal is to remove all of the cancer -- or as much of it as possible. Surgery is one of the mainstays of treatment, and today a procedure called modified radical mastectomy (MRM) has become a standard surgical treatment for early-stage breast cancers.

Modified radical mastectomy is especially helpful for early-stage breast cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes. Studies show that MRM is just as effective as radical mastectomy, but not nearly as disfiguring.  MRM spares one or both of the chest muscles, preventing an unsightly hollow in the chest that is common after a traditional radical mastectomy.

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About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of male breast cancer. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions. Reviewers and Updates This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial...

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What Is Modified Radical Mastectomy?

During a modified radical mastectomy, the surgeon removes the breast (including the skin, breast tissue, areola, and nipple) and most of the lymph nodes under the arm. The lining over the large muscle in the chest called the pectoralis major is also removed. However, this surgery spares the pectoralis major muscle itself.

MRM surgery tries to preserve enough healthy tissue and skin for a surgeon to perform breast reconstruction surgery in women who want to have it done.

What to Expect During an MRM

A modified radical mastectomy takes about two to four hours. The surgery might take longer if you have breast reconstruction surgery done immediately afterward.

While you are under general anesthesia, the surgeon will make a single incision across one side of the chest. The skin will be pulled back. Then the doctor will remove the entire breast tissue, the lining over the pectoralis major, as well as some of the lymph nodes under your arm.  Finally, the doctor will close the incision.

The goal is to remove the cancer while preserving as much of the skin and tissue as possible so that you can have breast reconstruction. The surgeon also will try to avoid damaging nearby blood vessels and nerves.

Although research has found modified radical mastectomy to be generally safe and effective, like all surgical procedures it can have risks, which include:

  • Bleeding
  • Infection
  • Swelling of the arm
  • Pockets of fluid forming underneath the incision (seromas)
  • Risks from general anesthesia

Some people experience numbness in the upper arm, which is caused by damage to small nerves in the area where the lymph nodes are removed. There is a good chance that you will regain most of the feeling in your arm over time.

The lymph nodes that are removed will be sent to a lab for examination to determine whether the cancer has spread.

After a Modified Radical Mastectomy

Once your surgery is complete, you will need to stay in the hospital for one or two nights. Thin plastic tubes will be placed in your breast area to drain off any fluid. These drains are attached to small suction devices. The drains will be removed about a week after your surgery. The hospital staff will show you how to care for the tubes until they are removed.

After a Modified Radical Mastectomy continued...

If you are feeling pain after your surgery, your doctor will prescribe pain medication for a week or two. You can usually treat any discomfort that persists after that time with over-the-counter pain relievers.

There is a good chance that you will feel very tired after a modified radical mastectomy. Try to take a break from some of your regular activities and rest during the two weeks following your surgery.

Depending on the size of your tumor and whether the cancer has spread to your lymph nodes, your doctor might recommend that you have radiation after modified radical mastectomy surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells.

Keep in mind, not all women can have a modified radical mastectomy, and there are many surgical options for breast cancer. Your doctor will decide which kind of surgery is best for you based on the size of the tumor, its stage (how far it has spread), and its grade (how aggressive it is). Your age and overall health will also be factored into the decision.