Breast-conserving surgery for breast cancer

Breast-conserving surgery aims to remove the cancer safely, but keep as much of the breast tissue and breast shape as possible.

What is breast-conserving surgery?

Breast-conserving surgery removes the cancer while keeping as much of the breast tissue and shape as possible. This type of surgery is called a wide local excision (WLE). You might also hear it called a lumpectomy.

During a WLE operation, the surgeon removes the cancer and some normal-looking tissue around it. This is called the margin.

Before the operation, a doctor inserts a fine wire or marker through the skin into the area where the cancer is. This is called wire localisation. The wire or marker is secured to your chest with tape or a dressing. The doctor uses an ultrasound or x-ray to help place the marker so that it marks the area to be removed. When the surgeon does the operation, they can also use x-ray or ultrasound to help them find the right area more easily. During the operation, the surgeon removes the wire, the cancer and some surrounding tissue.

You may have a magnetic seed injected into the area instead of having wire localisation. The surgeon uses a handheld machine that can detect the seed and the area to be removed. Your cancer doctor or breast care nurse can explain more about magnetic seeds.

If a large amount of tissue is removed, the breast will be smaller than before. If this happens, the surgeon can reduce the size of your other breast. This can help make your breasts look a similar size.

Removing a larger area of breast tissue

Depending on the size of the cancer, you may need to have a larger area of breast tissue removed.

In this situation, surgeons can use different ways to help improve the appearance of your breast after the operation. They may reshape the breast by moving the breast tissue around and making the breast smaller. Sometimes they take tissue from somewhere else in the body to help reshape the breast. This is called breast reconstruction.

Your surgeon may suggest you have the other breast made smaller so that both breasts look a similar size. This can be done at the same time as your operation or in a separate operation later.

We have more information about breast reconstruction for if you are having breast-conserving surgery and surgery to reshape the breast.

Radiotherapy after breast-conserving surgery

Your surgeon will usually advise you to have radiotherapy after a WLE. This reduces the risk of the cancer coming back in the breast.

Having breast-conserving surgery and radiotherapy is usually as effective as having a mastectomy.

Clear margins

After breast-conserving surgery, a pathologist looks at the tissue that has been removed under a microscope. They check the area around the cancer. This is called the margin. You will need another operation to remove more tissue if:

If the margins are clear, this reduces the risk of cancer coming back in the breast.

If your surgeon does not think another breast-conserving operation is likely to be successful, they may recommend a mastectomy. In this situation, you will usually be offered breast reconstruction.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Dr Rebecca Roylance, Consultant Medical Oncologist and Professor Mike Dixon, Professor of Surgery and Consultant Breast Surgeon.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

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We want everyone affected by cancer to feel our information is written for them.

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Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 October 2023
Next review: 01 October 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.