Mastectomy Surgery: Long-Term Care

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Recovering from mastectomy surgery can take a few weeks, but it can be different for every person. Those who don’t have reconstructive surgery in addition to a mastectomy typically recover around four to six weeks, while a mastectomy surgery without reconstruction (such as breast implants) may heal slightly quicker, around three weeks. Here’s what you need to know about the long-term care after mastectomy surgery.

Benefits of Surgery

The best way to preserve the benefits of mastectomy surgery is to keep up with your follow-up appointments with your health care provider. A study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice found that more than 20% of women diagnosed with stage I or stage II breast cancer stopped seeing a healthcare provider for breast cancer follow-up care within five years of their breast cancer diagnosis. The study also discovered that the discontinuation of visits were higher as patients got older.

While the five-year survival rate after breast cancer treatment is almost 90%, it’s still crucial to stay on top of follow-up care to ensure you have the best possible physical and mental health outcomes after going through a mastectomy surgery.

Follow-up care from a primary physician is typically determined based on your history and health; factors like age, specific diagnosis, and treatment protocol from the oncologist all determine what that will be. Typically, a physical examination is recommended every three to six months for the first three years after treatment, every six to 12 months for the next two years, and annually after that. Imaging usually isn’t necessary during these follow-up visits unless your health care provider suspects there is breast cancer reoccurrence.

If your treatment plan requires you to take hormone prescription medication, these appointments may also include pelvic exams and bone density tests. Mammograms are no longer required after a total mastectomy, but if you got a partial mastectomy you’ll still need a mammogram on the breast that was not removed.

As a breast cancer survivor, you might be used to the clarity previous scans provided. However, in healthy people recovering mastectomy, they can sometimes do more harm than good, such as unnecessary radiation exposure, overtreatment, and misdiagnosis if there are otherwise no symptoms.

Possible Future Surgeries

Aside from any post-mastectomy treatments your health care team might recommend (such as adjuvant chemotherapy), the most common future surgery after mastectomy is reconstruction surgery. This procedure rebuilds the breast tissue that was removed during the mastectomy procedure. There are many different types of reconstruction surgery to choose from, such as implant reconstruction, where the breast is built back up with a saline or silicone gel implant, and flap reconstruction, using tissue from another area of the body (like the butt or stomach) to help reshape the breast area.

Though many breast cancer survivors choose to have reconstruction surgery immediately after their mastectomy surgery, reconstruction is possible months to years after your mastectomy procedure. This is beneficial for those who may decide down the road that reconstruction is an option they are interested in.

It’s important to note that even with reconstruction surgery you may experience what’s called phantom sensations—the feeling of both painful and non-painful tingling, pressure, or burning where the original breast used to be (particularly if you experienced breast pain before your mastectomy). This is because although the nerves may be permanently damaged, the brain is still trying to send signals down to them, and nerves are extremely slow to heal. Phantom sensations usually go away (or come and go) over the course of a few months. If you find it to be painful and persistent, make sure to mention it to your healthcare provider. They may be able to give you medication to help with the discomfort.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Research has found that lifestyle changes are one of the most important factors in preventing breast cancer, so it makes sense that these same lifestyle changes are helpful in long-term care after a mastectomy procedure. These include:

  • Eating a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables
  • Getting daily physical activity and moving more throughout the day
  • Quitting smoking
  • Moderating your alcohol intake
  • Taking any vitamins and supplements recommended by your health care provider

Smoking cessation and avoiding weight gain, in particular, are two factors directly linked to helping the survival rate after mastectomy. It’s important to make the necessary steps you need to with your health in order to protect the benefits of your mastectomy surgery.

And don’t forget about your mental health. Getting counseling or joining a support group to deal with life after a mastectomy will help you feel better on the inside. This can also help you take care of your body on the outside by making sure to eat healthy and exercise regularly. If you find you need help in any of these areas, from nutrition, to exercise, to finding support forums, make sure to speak to your health care provider for a list of resources you can rely on.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re feeling overwhelmed on how to manage the long-term care of your mastectomy, it’s important to remember you have a team to help you. Start with getting a detailed care plan from your healthcare provider. This will include how often you will need follow-up appointments, any tests or treatment recommended, long-term side effects you should watch for, and how to adjust your lifestyle to include healthier habits. Keep all your medical records from your breast cancer diagnosis so that you have them in the event you move or switch healthcare providers. Your current healthcare provider will also have these on file, but it’s always a good idea to have a backup in your possession. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to a plastic surgeon for reconstruction when and if you decide you want it. They will have a network of physicians who regularly work with mastectomy patients to help you get the best outcome possible.

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