Generally speaking, surgery for breast cancer is a low-risk procedure. After undergoing a lumpectomy, you hope your breasts will heal and stay healthy. If you start to notice changes to your breasts after surgery, it’s natural to worry about what’s normal and when you should call your doctor.
One MyBCTeam member shared these concerns with the community. “The breast where I had a lumpectomy about one and a half months ago is changing. My nipple is changing color. The skin is darkening, but sort of red at the same time. My lumpectomy incision isn’t in this area. Is this normal?” they asked.
Most people who receive a breast cancer diagnosis will undergo a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. Your side effects may be different depending on whether you had lymph nodes removed and, if so, how many. Whether you had chemotherapy or radiotherapy can also be a factor.
This article covers the range of changes you can expect to see in your breast after a lumpectomy. Many changes are normal and no cause for concern.
Some people choose a lumpectomy (also called breast-conserving surgery, or BCS) to keep most of the breast and remove only the tumor. It’s common to receive radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or both before or after the surgery to further reduce the risk of your breast cancer returning.
This variation in treatment makes it hard to predict exactly what changes you’ll experience.
Keep reading to learn about some common changes you might notice.
Your lumpectomy involved a surgical incision, so you might see changes in or near the area of surgery. These include increased sensitivity, discoloration, or tenderness that are part of a normal recovery. Many people receive a lumpectomy as an outpatient procedure and recover after a few days.
After any surgical procedure, you have a risk of developing an infection. Sometimes, discoloration or tenderness could be signs of infection. You also may have an infection if:
Infections may need to be treated with antibiotics, so it’s important to call your doctor right away.
Normal tenderness should go away after two or three days, so if it lasts longer, you should call your doctor. Discoloration and/or bruising might continue for a couple of weeks, but this is still normal.
One MyBCTeam member experienced an infection and identified it by unusual redness and fever. “I had a lumpectomy with infection,” they wrote. “I had redness accompanied by pain and a low-grade fever. Needed antibiotics and aspirations to drain it. The process doesn’t hurt. Don’t hold back and think it gets better by itself.”
Although a lumpectomy tries to save as much healthy breast tissue as possible, your breast’s appearance after the surgery will depend on factors including tumor size, breast shape, and how the surgery is done. A lot depends on how much tissue was removed during the surgery. Many people choose a lumpectomy over a mastectomy for cosmetic reasons, but changes to breast size are normal.
You may notice that your breast is smaller after the lumpectomy. The size change may become noticeable over time as swelling goes down. For example, you might not notice any changes for a few weeks.
In contrast, you may find your breast is larger after surgery due to swelling, or you might feel a new firmness in your breast. If these changes happen within three to six months, they are normal. After the swelling goes down, you might notice your affected breast is smaller than the other. This, too, is a normal side effect of having breast tissue removed.
A plastic surgeon or breast surgeon who can perform breast reconstruction surgery can easily treat a difference in breast size. Many people choose this route.
One MyBCTeam member comforted another who was worried about size after lumpectomy: “Please don’t worry. This is a very common problem after surgery, especially with radiotherapy. My breasts are totally different sizes, but I’m fine with this. Thank goodness I’m lucky to have both still, even if they are different.”
As your breast tissue heals, the size changes can become more noticeable. New, sudden changes in size could be caused by swelling and could indicate other underlying problems. Be sure to let your doctor know about sudden or new changes.
Sometimes, after breast reconstruction surgery, fluid can collect and build up in the breast where the tissue was removed. This build-up, called a seroma, can also cause changes in breast size after surgery. Additionally, you may notice discharge from the nipple of the affected breast or discharge from the incision site, indicating fluid build-up.
Waiting for the swelling to subside may require patience. “I’m six months post lumpectomy and radiation, and the swelling is finally starting to go down,” shared one member. “My bra wants to ride up on one side. Lol. I’m forever pulling it back down. It could also feel like your breasts are swollen if they are filled with fluid. Nipple discharge after lumpectomy is a common complaint, but it may seem scary.
Seromas can go away on their own. If you notice excessive swelling or pressure, discolored or hot skin, or increased pain after a few days, call your doctor. They can perform a procedure to drain the fluid that’s collected in your breast.
Having a small amount of blood on the surgical dressing after your operation is common and should be no cause for worry. However, if you have heavy bleeding, call your doctor or nurse right away. Light bleeding is also temporary. Any bleeding and discoloration beyond a couple of days could indicate a more serious problem or bleeding under your skin.
Your breast skin may look and feel different after a lumpectomy, especially if you also had chemo or radiation treatments. Your skin might have a rougher texture. Additionally, some people notice a dimple in the skin as the incision area and breast tissue heal.
You may also notice changes to the firmness or softness of your breast. Your breast now contains scar tissue from the surgery. Feeling a tender lump that begins to turn hard is normal — it’s the incision site healing and not a return of your cancer. Scar tissue often feels a lot denser than normal tissue.
Call your doctor any time you experience prolonged pain or if you notice a texture change much later after your lumpectomy.
After surgery, as your nerves regrow and heal, you might notice your breast is more sensitive. You might also have an itchy sensation or numbness as your body heals. Sensations like these are normal. Some people experience burning or shooting pain in their chest wall that may not go away over time. If you’re ever concerned, talk to your doctor about treatment options for continued pain. Any prolonged or serious pain may indicate another underlying complication.
MyBCTeam members share a variety of experiences and concerns as they heal after breast cancer surgery.
They also regularly encourage each other to ask their doctor about any changes that they notice. “It’s better to call for nothing than not call, and something is wrong,” stated one member.
You might not experience all of these changes, as your cancer treatment and your body are unique. As always, your health care provider is your best resource if you ever have a question or concern about your breasts after your lumpectomy.
On MyBCTeam — the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones — more than 65,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Did you experience any of the above changes after lumpectomy? Did you notice any other changes in your breast? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.