Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can be a devastating experience as it is, so the thought of having a mastectomy and reconstruction can be both physically and psychologically challenging.
For many women, their breasts are a part of their identity, so it is natural to experience feelings of shock, sadness and grief at the thought of having a mastectomy. In addition to physical recovery, women must also consider their emotional recovery following the surgery.
According to research, up to 17% of women in early-stage breast cancer go through a mastectomy and there is a recovery time of approximately 4-6 weeks. While your doctor will provide the best information and advice for recovery, here we offer some tips that might make the process of recovery easier and more empowering.
Potential Physical Side Effects After Surgery
After such a major surgical procedure, your body needs time to adjust and heal. It is therefore natural to experience some physical side effects, which can be managed with pain medication, exercise, and lots of rest. These include:
• Scar tissue
Recovery in the Hospital
After surgery, some time will be spent in the recovery room, where medical staff will monitor your vitals like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. They will also make sure your wound is clean and healing as it should. Your chest should typically feel numb at this point while your doctor or nurse will administer pain medication to manage any discomfort. Once you are ready to leave the recovery room, you will be transferred to a regular hospital room and be monitored and taken care of until you are discharged.
Recovery at Home
At home recovery from a mastectomy usually takes a few weeks but it could take longer depending on your body, your surgery, and your activities while recovering. While your surgeon will advise on how to properly recover at home, the following tips might help you as well.
Get as much rest as possible - A mastectomy is a major surgical procedure and your body needs time to heal. Rest as much as possible to help the process along.
Caring for your dressing – Your surgeon or nurse will likely advise you on how to look after your mastectomy bandage. Try not to remove the bandage or fidget with your dressing and instead wait for your follow-up visit to have it removed.
Caring for surgical drain – Sometimes, the surgical drain is removed before you leave the hospital but sometimes it remains in place until your first follow-up appointment. If you are sent home with the drain inserted, you will have to empty the fluid that collects in the drain bulb a few times a day. Your surgeon should give you instructions on caring for the drain before you leave the hospital.
Stitches and staples – Most surgeons these days use dissolvable stitches, so there is no need to have them removed. If the surgeon has used surgical stitches, this will be removed during your first follow-up visit. You may also arrange a breast care nurse to help take care of you post op.
Ask for help - Ask friends, family and relatives for as much help as possible. As you will be resting, you will need someone to help with things like housework, meal preparation and childcare. Take it slow and avoid any strenuous work.
Take pain medication - During recovery you may still feel pain and discomfort in the armpit or chest. Be sure to take the necessary pain medication as they do wonders for pain relief. This will also put you in better spirits, which will help progress your recovery.
Exercise - Your surgeon will likely advise on the best exercises to speed up recovery. It is important to gently move around while at home to prevent stiffness and maintain flexibility.
Take sponge baths instead of showers - You should avoid showering until all your drains and sutures have been removed and instead take a sponge bath.
Express your emotions - During this recovery time, you can expect to feel emotional. It is normal to feel grief, anger, sadness, and fear, but there should also be feelings of happiness, gratitude and relief. Know what's normal and talk to someone if you are struggling to deal with negative emotions. Once physically recovered, it may be helpful to join a support group to meet other people who have been through this process as well.
Recovery from a mastectomy takes time, with the entire recovery process varying from person to person. Remember that this process involves both physical and emotional changes. Before the surgery, it is a good idea to talk to friends, fellow breast cancer survivors, and to surround yourself with loved ones and a strong support system. If you have any concerns about the surgery or recovery process, speak to a doctor.