When surgically treating patients for cancer, a doctor’s primary goal is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. While nonsurgical options are available, they may prove to be less effective. For that reason, if you have breast cancer, doctors may recommend a modified radical mastectomy (MRM).

A modified radical mastectomy is a procedure that removes the entire breast — including the skin, breast tissue, areola, and nipple — along with most of your underarm lymph nodes. However, your chest muscles are left intact.

The MRM procedure is a standard option for treating breast cancer. Other surgical options include:

  • simple or total mastectomy
  • radical mastectomy
  • partial mastectomy
  • nipple-sparing (subcutaneous mastectomy)
  • skin-sparing mastectomy
  • lumpectomy (breast conservation therapy)

Modified radical mastectomy vs. radical mastectomy

Similar to the MRM procedure, a radical mastectomy involves removing the entire breast — the breast tissue, skin, areola, and nipple. However, this procedure also involves removing chest muscles. The radical mastectomy is the most invasive procedure and is only considered if a tumor is found that has spread into the chest muscles.

Once performed as a more common treatment for breast cancer, the radical mastectomy is now rarely used. The modified radical mastectomy has proven to be a less invasive procedure with equally effective results.

Who usually gets a modified radical mastectomy?

People whose breast cancer has spread to the axillary lymph nodes who decide to have a mastectomy may be recommended to have the MRM procedure. MRM is also available for patients with any type of breast cancer where there may be a reason to remove the axillary lymph nodes.

The overall goal of an MRM procedure is to remove all or most of the cancer present, while preserving as much of the healthy skin tissue as possible. This makes it possible to perform an effective breast reconstruction after you’ve healed properly.

For a modified radical mastectomy, you will be placed under general anesthesia. Your doctor will then mark your chest to prepare for incisions. Making one incision across your chest, your doctor will carefully pull your skin back far enough to remove your breast tissue. They will also remove most of the lymph nodes under your arm. The entire procedure commonly takes from two to four hours.

Once removed, your lymph nodes will be examined to determine whether cancer has spread to them or through them to other areas of your body. Your doctor will also place thin plastic tubes in your breast area to drain any excess fluid. They may remain in your chest for up to one to two weeks.

As with any surgical procedure, MRM can cause a number of complications. Risks of this procedure include:

  • pain or tenderness
  • bleeding
  • swelling in your arm or incision site
  • limited arm movement
  • numbness
  • seroma (fluid buildup beneath the wound site)
  • hematoma (blood buildup in the wound)
  • scar tissue

Recovery times differ from one person to the next. Typically, people remain in the hospital for one or two days. In some cases, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy or chemotherapy following your mastectomy procedure.

At home, it’s important to keep your surgical area clean and dry. You will be given specific instructions on how to care for your wound site and how to properly bathe. Pain is normal, but the amount of discomfort you experience may vary. Your doctor may suggest pain relievers, but only take what is prescribed. Some pain medications can cause complications and slow your healing process.

Lymph node removal can cause your arm to feel stiff and sore. Your doctor may recommend certain exercises or physical therapy to increase movement and prevent swelling. Perform these exercises slowly and regularly to prevent injury and complications.

If you begin to experience more discomfort or if you notice you are healing at a slower pace, schedule a visit with your doctor.

There are many surgical options available for breast cancer. While a modified radical mastectomy is common, your doctor will recommend the best option for your situation.

If you have concerns about any procedure, schedule a visit with your physician. They can help guide you toward the best decision for your health.