Mastectomy Surgery: Recovery

Follow-up examination after mastectomy

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Recovering from a mastectomy surgery is a two-part process. You’ll start recovering in the hospital immediately following the procedure and then you’ll continue that recovery at home, often with the help of family and friends. Upon being discharged from the hospital, you’ll be given a list of things to do. This will include prescriptions for pain medication, how to care for the bandage and surgical drains, recognizing signs of infection or lymphedema, arm exercises to do, and when you can start wearing a bra again (though your old bras won’t cut it, you’ll need to make sure you have a mastectomy bra to help you heal, at least initially). Once you get home, you’ll continue to rest and recover on your own. It may take anywhere from two to three weeks to fully recover.

Surgery Follow-Up

Following your mastectomy surgery, breast tissue removed from the breast(s) is examined by a pathologist. They look for any tumors in the surgical margins and make sure all the cancerous tissue had been removed. This includes judging whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (which may or may not have been taken out at the time of your mastectomy surgery) or other areas of your body.

The results from the pathologist take about a week to be reported to your physician. You can expect a call from your healthcare provider to discuss the findings and check in on your recovery.

From there, you’ll wait for your post-operative appointment, which is scheduled before your surgery. This is typically anywhere between 10 to 14 days post-surgery. At the appointment your healthcare provider will check on your progress as well as take out any stitches or staples around the incision (including any surgical drains), and remove or change the dressing around the breast.

There are a few instances where you’ll need to see a healthcare provider before your scheduled follow-up visit. If you experience any of the below, call them immediately for medical care:

  • Pain or fever (higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit) not remedied by pain medication.
  • Excessive bleeding, redness, or discharge around the dressing.
  • Swelling
  • Constipation
  • Anxiety, depression, or severe mood swings.

Recovery Timeline

Once you leave the hospital it’s important to rest at home, making sure to take it easy and not jump back into your usual routine too quickly. Because you’ll be sore immediately after a mastectomy surgery and numb in the chest area indefinitely, you’ll need time to adjust to a new normal, possibly re-learning skills like getting dressed and showering. Remember: Any surgery can take a physical toll on the body, so don’t worry if you’re extremely tired at first once you get home. Focus on getting proper rest whenever you need it and you’ll slowly start to feel more like yourself each day that passes.

Your healthcare team will give you a list of arm exercises to do during your recovery. You can do these any time you feel ready, but most patients find it takes about three to four weeks before they are able to start exercising again. The same applies to driving. Try not to drive (unless it’s an emergency or essential) once you get home, especially if it causes pain in the wound area. After about three weeks, you should be able to drive without feeling uncomfortable.

As for returning to work, the average person having a mastectomy takes approximately four to eight weeks off. Not only will this help you physically heal, the extra time will help your emotional recovery as well.

Coping With Recovery

Adjusting to the changes in your body after mastectomy surgery can be extremely difficult. Depending on if you’ve had reconstructive surgery following your mastectomy or not, it can take some time to get used to the new body you’ve been given. This can affect your relationship with your partner as well as yourself.

There will also be a logistical aspect of your post-mastectomy body, such as buying new clothes or trying to fit into your old clothes. Chances are shirts and swimsuit tops will fit you much differently now, and you may find you want or need to look for certain styles that don’t accentuate your chest area.

To help cope from a mastectomy surgery, it’s important to have support in the process. But that support may look different based on the individual. For some, traditional support groups offer a network or sense of community while others may prefer one-on-one counseling or talking to a few close friends and family members.

The type of support you need may also differ if you’ve gone through a mastectomy as part of your treatment of breast cancer versus doing it as a preventative step if you have a BRCA gene mutation. As well, some individuals choose to have a mastectomy as part of gender-affirming surgery.

Coping with such a drastic physical change to your body without a positive breast cancer diagnosis may stir up feelings of uncertainty in your decision, and speaking with others who have gone through an elective mastectomy for similar reasons can help you sort through your own doubts or fears about life after the procedure.

Regardless of the reason behind your mastectomy surgery, figure out what kind of support works best for you in order to handle the many emotions that come following a mastectomy and then make sure to get the help you need.

A Word From Verywell

More than 100,000 people undergo a type of mastectomy each year in order to treat or prevent breast cancer. This means while everyone’s experience of going through a mastectomy surgery is different, there are many dealing with similar emotions and the physical hurdles that come with it. If you’re recovering from mastectomy surgery keep this in mind as you assemble the tools and support you need, be it in person, online (for example, you can read up on blogs from breast cancer survivors for things like must-have gear to have at home to make your mastectomy recovery easier or join message boards based in numerous post-mastectomy topics), or both.

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Article Sources
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  2. NHS. Mastectomy. February 28, 2018.

  3. UCSF Health. Mastectomy: Instructions after surgery.

  4. UPMC. Coping with emotions after mastectomy. October 3, 2017.

  5. Brigham and Women's Hospital. Mastectomy and double mastectomy.