What Should I Expect from Mastectomy Recovery?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 28 May 2020
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Mastectomy is the surgical removal of one or both breasts and, in some cases, one or more nearby lymph nodes. This procedure is usually performed on women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer or who are at a very high risk for developing breast cancer. Mastectomy recovery begins in the hospital, where your vital signs and wound site will be monitored. Once at home, your recovery will continue with wound self-care, medications, therapeutic exercises, infection awareness, and plenty of rest. During home recovery, you will also need to visit your doctor one or more times to get follow-up wound care, to discuss mastectomy results, and, if needed, to prepare for further cancer treatments or breast reconstruction surgery.

Your mastectomy recovery will begin immediately after you emerge from surgery. As you will likely be given a general anesthetic prior to the procedure, a nurse anesthetist or other medical care professional will ensure that you properly recover from the anesthesia at the procedure’s end. Medical staff will also monitor your vital signs to make sure your bodily systems are functioning normally.

In most cases, you will be required to stay in the hospital for one night following your mastectomy. If you had both breasts removed, had one or more lymph nodes removed, or had an immediate breast reconstruction procedure, you may need to remain in the hospital for a longer period. During your hospital stay, medical staff will continue to monitor your vital signs. They will administer pain medication as needed, monitor your sutures and your wound drainage, and check for signs of infection, and they may guide you through exercises which can minimize arm stiffness and discomfort. Generally, they will also educate you about how to continue the mastectomy recovery process once you have left the hospital.

When you have been released from the hospital, your mastectomy recovery will continue at home. You will need to care for your wound according to your physician’s instructions. This often means leaving dressings untouched and washing only with a sponge until your first follow-up visit. Some mastectomies involve the placement of a tube which helps fluid drain from the breast area. If you have had tubes placed near your wound site, you will need to drain them according to your physician’s directions.

Pain management and infection control are also important parts of mastectomy home recovery. Your doctor will most likely prescribe a pain medication which should be taken as directed. It is very important that your wound does not become infected. Therefore, you should discuss the signs of infection with medical staff before the end of your hospital stay, and should closely monitor yourself for these signs once you are at home.

A few therapeutic stretching exercises can help ease the pain and discomfort which commonly affect the arm, shoulder, and back during mastectomy recovery. These exercises should be demonstrated for you before the end of your hospital stay, and you should perform them as directed. Additionally, you should allow your body to regain strength by getting plenty of rest in the days and weeks following your surgery.

Several days after your mastectomy, you will likely need to see your doctor for a follow-up visit. During this visit, your doctor may remove your dressing, inspect your wound, and remove stitches or drainage tubes if necessary. Generally, she will also discuss the results of your mastectomy at this time. Should further cancer treatments such as chemotherapy be advisable, she will help you prepare. If you did not undergo breast reconstruction at the time of your mastectomy but plan to do so in the future, your doctor can also help you plan for this procedure.

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Post 1

When my mom had a mastectomy, she was visited by a representative from the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery support group. That was really helpful. Aside from wound care and general recovery from surgery, the lady who talked to her helped her understand some of the weirdness she would be dealing with after having a breast removed.

One thing the lady suggested was for my mom to tuck a pillow under the arm on the mastectomy side for a while. Mom said this really did help with the feeling of "nothingness" on that side. She said it was actually very comforting.

Starting physical therapy to combat swelling is also a great idea. Some women have a lot of swelling in the arm on the surgery side, and exercise helps the lymph fluid drain.

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