After Mastectomy Surgery: It’s the Little Things
October 11, 2018
I’ve learned there’s a huge difference between having a lumpectomy and having a mastectomy, because I’ve now had both. Both are scary—what surgery isn’t?—but a mastectomy is “major,” as countless people have told me, and much more physically challenging in the immediate post-operative days and weeks. Full recovery from a mastectomy, when you reach your new normal, takes months before you are no longer constantly aware of how your chest is feeling.
Full recovery from a mastectomy, when you reach your new normal, takes months before you are no longer constantly aware of how your chest is feeling.
Complementary therapies can help in so many important ways both as you prepare for surgery for breast cancer or any other type of cancer and during your recuperation after surgery. In my last post (10/9), I wrote about how I prepared for surgery with therapies that helped me relax and calm fears as well as how I’ve aided my recovery from surgery with another menu of complementary choices.
But the little things matter a lot too. Even with an excellent breast cancer surgeon, I was left with so many questions about seemingly small post-operative issues that felt more scary or frustrating than they needed to be because it was hard to find answers. That’s not what you want when you’re in the immediate aftermath of surgery.
I thought that if I’m having trouble finding answers, then probably other breast cancer patients are too. So I wrote up a Frequently Asked Questions based on my experience and showed them to my surgeon. She liked them a lot and said she might share them with other patients. I hope they help you too.
Here are the most helpful items to have ready when you come home from surgery:
I thought that if I’m having trouble finding answers, then probably other breast cancer patients are too.
- Two camisoles with pockets to hold your drains. You’ll wear the camisoles non-stop until the drains are removed so if you have two you’ll have a spare when you’re washing the first one. There are a lot of post-surgical camisoles to choose from. I liked the kind that closes in the front with a Velcro strip because it makes taking the camisole off and putting it back on very easy when you’re still having difficulty with range of motion in your arms.
- A cloth belt with pockets made specifically to hold the drains while you’re in the shower.
- A pad (“chest buddy”) to attach to your seat belt so that it doesn’t irritate your chest on the ride home from the hospital or any other time you’re in the car. You may use the “chest buddy” for several months post-surgery until the seat belt is comfortable across your chest.
Amazon has a good selection of post-mastectomy/breast surgery products. Each of these items can be found there.
Answers to some questions you may have
How long will I need to sleep on my back?
Your body will know when it’s okay to resume your normal sleeping position.
At least until the drains are removed. After that you may find that side sleeping is comfortable for short periods, which you can gradually lengthen over the next few weeks. Your body will know when it’s okay to resume your normal sleeping position.
How long should I wear dressings (gauze bandages) under the chest binder that I got in the hospital?
Until the binder no longer irritates your incisions.
How long should I wear the chest binder?
At least until you’ve been fitted with your new post-surgical bras. After that, you may find that the binder still gives you more comfort than the bras because it’s tighter. It’s okay to alternate between the binder and a bra depending on what feels better at the moment, ie, how much compression you want around your chest. You’ll gradually transition to bras and the chest binder will become unnecessary.
Sometimes I have odd nerve sensations around my incisions. The most disturbing one feels like liquid (is it blood?) trickling across my chest and down my side. Is this a normal feeling?
Yes it is. You are not bleeding. These sensations are the result of nerves in your chest beginning to repair themselves. They will gradually disappear.
In the first week after surgery, I sometimes feel faint, light headed or slightly nauseous. What can I do to feel better?
Pay close attention to what your body is telling you to eat and when you need to eat.
Pay close attention to what your body is telling you to eat and when you need to eat. You may have cravings for extra protein. You may find that eating smaller portions more frequently makes you feel better. It is very important to stay hydrated because poor hydration can cause low blood pressure, which can create the unpleasant feelings you’re having. Drink at least 4-6 glasses of water, tea or juice every day. Coffee doesn’t count: it’s dehydrating.
Are there exercises that are helpful in reducing stiffness and increasing mobility?
Definitely. See these exercises recommended by the American Cancer Society and cited by several other sources. Do them twice a day. They make a real difference. I’m still doing them five months after surgery.
My biggest complaint post-surgery is chest tightness. What can I do to reduce it? When will it go away?
The exercises just mentioned can be very helpful. Other things to try include massage, gentle yoga, acupuncture or cannabis.
The exercises just mentioned can be very helpful. Other things to try include massage, gentle yoga, acupuncture or cannabis. You should of course consult with your surgeon before trying any of these options.
I found that as long as I wore the chest binder or a bra, the compression significantly reduced tightness in my chest. Be prepared to wear a binder or bra 24/7.
Based on many women’s experiences, you can expect chest tightness to last several months and gradually diminish over this period.
GOOD LUCK WITH YOUR HEALING!
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Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Ruth. I know your journey will be so helpful to so many. I'm only sorry you didn't have such sage advise and counsel when you were going through this.