How to care for yourself before and after mastectomy

Care after your mastectomy

Care after your mastectomy.

Grandma walking in hospital after mastectomy with her granddaughter

It doesn’t have to be October to think about breast cancer. Each October, we are inundated with new statistics, risk factors, symptoms, and treatments, but everyday breast cancer causes more mastectomies than we can fathom.

Rarely do we read about what happens after a mastectomy.  After the shock, the rollercoaster of emotions, and dealing with it head-on, most don’t know what to expect beyond doom and gloom. While everyone’s journey is different, we hope our Reader’s Digest version of after a mastectomy provides a supplemental level of comfort and care. 

Before surgery, prepare to go home

That may sound like crazy advice, to prepare to go home before your surgery, but think about it. It will take weeks and possibly months to fully heal from a mastectomy. We recommend having in-home care ready to help you when you get home, so there is absolutely nothing that you HAVE to do.  It’s also helpful to have your caregiver be with you when during your discharge from the hospital. This way, your caregiver can ensure you follow the doctor’s instructions, get your medications filled, and ask any questions you may not have thought about or clarify anything the doctor may have said.

What happens after mastectomy surgery?

Someone will take you to your hospital room after recovery. The average hospital stay for a mastectomy is three days or less.  You may be in the hospital longer if you have a mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time.
After your surgery, your surgeon or nurse will show you exercises that you can do to prevent arm and shoulder stiffness on the side where you had the mastectomy and help prevent scar tissue formation. It’s an excellent time to ask your surgeon any questions about exercise. It would help if you got written, illustrated instructions on how to do the exercises.

Before leaving the hospital, you will get information about recovering at home. It’s best to have your caregiver with you to learn about your aftercare and what to look for as you heal.

  • Taking pain medication: Most likely, you’ll go home with a prescription for pain medicine. It’s best to get the prescription filled on the way home or have a friend do it for you, so it’s there if needed.
  • Caring for the bandage over your incision: Before leaving the hospital, you’ll get instructions on how to care for your bandage. Most surgeons ask that you not remove the bandage as the doctor will at your first appointment.
  • Caring for a surgical drain: If you have a drain in your breast area or armpit, the doctor or nurse may remove it before leaving the hospital. Sometimes, however, a drain stays inserted until the doctor’s first follow-up visit, usually one to two weeks after surgery. If you’re going home with a drain inserted, you’ll need to empty the fluid from the detachable drain bulb a few times a day. Make sure your surgeon gives you instructions on caring for the drain before you leave the hospital.
  • Stitches and staples: Most surgeons use sutures that dissolve over time, so you don’t have to remove them. If you have surgical staples instead of sutures, the doctor will remove them during the first office visit after surgery.
  • Recognizing signs of infection: Your surgeon should explain how to tell if you have an infection in your incision and when to call the office.
  • Exercising your arm: Continue the exercise routine the surgeon gave you earlier to prevent arm and shoulder stiffness on the side where you had surgery. 
  • Recognizing signs of lymphedema: If you have had axillary dissection, you’ll get information on taking care of your arm and being alert to signs of lymphedema.
  • When you can start wearing a prosthesis or resume wearing a bra: You need time to heal before you can wear a prosthesis or bra. Your doctor will help you to determine when that may be.

Going home

Preparing the home: It’s helpful to have your caregiver prepare meals and even put a few in the freezer to heat caregiver helping senior with arm exercisesup later. Additionally, your caregiver can do laundry and tidy up your home. You’ll be amazed at how helpful it is to have someone making sure everything you need is within easy reach of the bed or couch.  Your caregiver can grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, and even drive you to your first doctor visit after surgery, complete with a report to share with your family, if necessary.

Driving home: Have your caregiver drive on the way home because driving after being under anesthesia, not to mention major surgery, is dangerous. As a passenger, the seatbelt may hurt your sensitive chest area, so have your caregiver bring a small pillow to place between your chest and belt.

At-home recovery from mastectomy

It can take a few weeks to recover from mastectomy surgery, and longer if you have had reconstruction. It’s essential to take the time you need to heal. Don’t rush it.

In addition to your surgeon’s instructions, here are some general guidelines to follow at home:

Rest. When you get home from the hospital, you will probably be fatigued from the experience. Allow yourself to get extra rest in the first few weeks after surgery. Take pain medication as needed. You will probably feel a mixture of numbness and pain around the breast incision and the chest wall (and the armpit incision, if you had axillary dissection). If you feel the need, take pain medication according to your doctor’s instructions. Learn more about managing chest pain, armpit discomfort, and general pain. Take sponge baths until your doctor has removed your drains and sutures. You can take your first shower after the doctor removes your drains and staples. A sponge bath can refresh you until your doctor approves showers or baths. Continue doing arm exercises each day. It’s important to continue doing arm exercises regularly to prevent stiffness and to keep your arm flexible.

Have a caregiver to help around the house. Recovery from a mastectomy can take time. Your caregiver can help with meals, laundry, shopping, and childcare. As your body heals, don’t feel you should take on more than you can handle.

Expect to be emotional.
Some days will be better than others. Accept whatever emotions arise, and know that it is normal to feel grief, anger, sadness, and fear after this type of procedure. It is also common to feel happiness and relief as the recovery progresses.

In the months after mastectomy
Your body will continue to adjust to the effects of the surgery over the next few months. Be sure to continue your arm exercises until your doctor tells you to. Don’t miss a doctor’s appointment.

If you experience fatigue or phantom pain, it’s perfectly normal. Be sure to tell your doctor.

Take care of yourself.