Recovering from a mastectomy: What to expect after surgery
Mastectomy is a surgery to remove breast cancer by removing the entire breast. This operation is conducted when a woman battling with breast cancer cannot be treated with breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy), which spares most of the breast. In some cases, a woman might choose to get a mastectomy for personal health reasons, including being at very high risk of getting a second cancer. These women go through a double mastectomy, a removal of both breasts.
When is a mastectomy recommended?
Your doctor may recommend a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, plus radiation if:
- You have already had radiation treatment to the breast region but the breast cancer has recurred in the breast
- You are unable to have radiation therapy
- You have inflammatory breast cancer
- You have widespread or malignant calcium deposits throughout the breast
- You have two or more tumors in different areas of the breast
- You have a larger tumor, or a tumor that is large relative to your breast size
- You carry a gene mutation that puts you at high risk of developing a second cancer in your breast
- You are pregnant and radiation would put your unborn child at risk
- Although you have had a lumpectomy, the breast cancer is still present at the edges of the operated area
- You have a serious connective tissue disease such as scleroderma or lupus and may not tolerate the side effects of radiation to the skin
What should I expect after surgery?
Generally, women who go through a mastectomy stay in the hospital for 1 to 2 days. The duration of the recovery time depends on what procedures were done, so it’s different for every woman. A majority of women are highly functional after the surgery and can go back to their everyday activities within 4 weeks. The recovery time can be longer in the case of a breast reconstruction.
It’s the health care team that will give written instructions about care after surgery. These instructions will include:
- How to care for the bandage over the wound: in most cases, you’ll be asked not to remove the bandage until your first follow-up visit.
- How to care for your drain: sometimes the drain gets removed before leaving the hospital. However, sometimes the drain stays inserted until the first follow-up visit with your doctor which is usually 1-2 weeks after surgery. In this case, you’ll be given instructions on how to empty the fluid from the drain bulb a few times per day.
- When to use pain medication: upon leaving the hospital, your doctor will give you a prescription for pain medicines and possibly antibiotics. It’s advisable that you buy the medicines on your way home or have a family member or a friend get it for you so that you have it available.
- How to recognize signs of infection: your doctor/surgeon will explain how to notice signs of infection in your breast area.
- How to exercise your arm: your surgeon/doctor/nurse will explain when to start using your arm again and how to do arm exercises to prevent stiffness. It’s recommended to start with the exercises the morning after surgery. In most cases, you should be given written, illustrated instructions on how to do the exercises.
- How to stay comfortable and active: your doctor might suggest wearing compression sleeves and garments that can aid you during the healing process. The GABRIALLA Post-mastectomy Compression Arm Sleeve is designed with the recovering woman in mind. It’s an effective method to help increase blood flow, improve circulation and promote faster healing post-mastectomy. This compression garment promotes faster healing by reducing swelling in the arm from lymphedema or postoperative edema, and swelling due to arm immobility.
- When to start wearing a bra again: the area of mastectomy needs time to heal. It’s your doctor who will tell you when you can start wearing a bra again.
- How to recognize signs of lymphedema: just as with breast cancer, detecting lymphedema early increases the likelihood of successful treatment. Upon leaving the hospital, you will be given information on taking care of your arm and being alert to signs of lymphedema.