Planning for Recovery After a Mastectomy or Bilateral Mastectomy

woman getting comfort at home

After a mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy, you need a comfortable, functional and safe environment in which to heal and rest. Making your living space user-friendly when you're bandaged, with a constrained range of motion and walking around for a few weeks with one or more drains from the surgical site takes planning. You need to know what you can realistically expect from yourself in areas such as self-care and functioning in your home environment.

The tips offered here are a composite of my experience following a bilateral mastectomy and the experiences of women we spoke at the American Cancer Society.

What You Will Need for the Trip Home From the Hospital

To begin with, let's start with dressing to leave the hospital; it is best to have things that you can easily get in and out of and don't have to be pulled on and off such as tee shirts or sweatshirts. Wear a big shirt that opens in the front and will accommodate the camisole you are wearing over your surgical site, which has pockets that hold the drain(s) leading from your incision(s). Sweatpants and a zip-front jacket will work well. You may be a  little unsteady on your feet from the lingering effects of anesthesia and pain medications. Sneakers or other sturdy shoes with no heels are a good choice. 

Ask whoever picks you up to carry your bags, even the lightest one.

For the car trip home, you need a pillow between you and your safety belt; you don't want the belt resting on the bandage covering your surgical site.

Prepping for Comfort in Your Home

Before you go in for your surgery, do a walk-through of your living space and prepare it for when you get home from surgery.

  • Sleeping Arrangements: If you are married or in a relationship, you may want to have a separate sleeping area for the first few nights. It might be difficult getting comfortable; you may be unable to sleep because of pain, or just plain concern that your spouse or partner may bump into you while asleep. Sleeping on your stomach is out; sleeping on your side may be uncomfortable to the point that you cannot do it. Left only with the option of sleeping on your back, you may find it is easier if you prop up with a few pillows to a slightly reclining position. Another option is sleeping in a soft cushion recliner chair.  Wherever you are sleeping, have a table within easy reach where you can have tissues, pain medications, water, cell phone, TV remote and anything else you might need during the night.
  • Rest Area: Designate a rest space, other than your bed, where you can watch TV, listen to music, talk on the phone and read. Equip an end table the same as you would equip your nightstand.
  • Personal Hygiene: Since you will not be able to shower until your doctor removes your drains and sutures, arrange your bathroom so that you can comfortably and safely take sponge baths. Make sure your personal-care items are on low shelves. Ask a friend or your spouse to help you shampoo your hair.
  • Drain Care: Before you leave the hospital, you will be instructed on how to empty the fluids coming from your surgical site into the drain bulb a few times a day.
  • Feed the freezer: Accept offers to feed your freezer with meals you and your family can eat as you recover.
  • Accept/Schedule Help with Transportation: Until your doctor clears you to drive, you will need transportation to and from your medical visits. If you have young children, you will need to arrange their transportation to and from school and activities.

 Resuming Regular Activities

  • Avoid crowded shopping areas, heavy lifting and carrying items that are a dead weight.
  • Walking is the best activity that you can do right away.
  • No housework, or other physical chores until the physician removes your drains.
  • Driving can be resumed when your drains are out and when you are no longer taking narcotic pain medications.

While many women return to working between four and six weeks, everyone heals at a different pace. Your doctor will clear you to return to your job when he or she feels you can safely resume the functions of your position. 

Jean Campbell is a 2x breast cancer survivor and the former founding director of the American Cancer Society New York City Patient Navigator Program in 14 public and private hospitals.She is executive director of a nonprofit organization providing research and resource information and support to women and men newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

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