Mastectomy Recovery Tips
In July 2008, actress Christina Applegate made the difficult decision to have a double mastectomy. Although her breast cancer was caught early in only one breast, she found out she carried the BRCA1 gene, which increases the risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Although the actress is known for her comedic talents and dealt with this situation with considerable wit and humor, it left her with physical and emotional scars. "It can be very painful," she said. "It's also a part of you that's gone, so you go through a grieving process and a mourning process."
The truth is, a breast cancer diagnosis is devastating and mastectomy and reconstruction are painful, both physically and psychologically. It’s natural to feel a range of emotions such as sadness, shock, and anger. After all, you made major decisions about your body within a short period of time. Moreover, most women are raised to believe breasts are part of their sexual appeal and identity. Mourning and missing them is a natural reaction to a traumatic event and an important part of the grieving process. Professional advice only goes so far – women who have lived through mastectomy and reconstruction are invaluable sources for helping other women through this significant challenge.
Firsthand Tips From Breast Cancer Survivors
Drain and pain management:
Exterior drains and drainage tubing sewn into you can cause more pain than incisions, according to some women. A small pillow placed in between your side and armpit can help reduce friction and pain. Drains can be painful when you empty them. After doing so, suction improves and pressure increases. If pain becomes unbearable, unplug the drain to temporarily ease the pressure until you can find a more comfortable position. Take pain meds a full hour prior to emptying drains to minimize pain. One woman said a nylon lanyard hung around her neck was a helpful gadget to clip to her drain. Another woman used a large safety pin and attached this to a homemade Velcro “belt” to prevent the drains from moving around. While showering, she strung them through cotton yarn.
While incisions are healing externally, muscle movements and strength are seriously compromised. Dealing with this while coping with the mental challenges can be overwhelming. Be honest with doctors and nurses and family members about your pain level. If you are experiencing adverse effects from painkillers, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or nurse to prescribe something different.
Take a full dose of pain medication one hour prior to bed and sleep in a guest room or comfy couch if you have one. Spread out and put a pillow under affected side(s) because elevating the arm helps relieve pressure. Another woman suggested sleeping on one’s side with a pillow under the knees and relied on a full body pillow after reconstruction.
Stock up on a minimum of 2 weeks of food before surgery. If you like cooking, prepare and freeze meals for yourself and family ahead of time. Pain can make you nauseous and painkillers can be hard on the digestive system. Even if you lose your appetite, it’s important to eat something. One survivor suggested eating yogurt, pudding, rice pudding, bananas, and anything else easy on the stomach. You may want to avoid eating too much soy, because it is controversial for women with breast cancer.
Some camisoles and robes are designed to hold drains. Mastectomy bras and camis have removable inserts, so breast forms can be inserted into the pockets. Their soft stretchy material enables easy sizing and complete comfort for sensitive skin and scar tissue. Wait until your drains are removed to be fitted for a prosthetic insert. Pulling clothing over the head is too difficult. Soft, loose-fitting clothing such as baggy flannel shirts and oversized cardigan sweaters are ideal since they hide drains and don’t rub against sensitive skin. If it’s too hot to wear flannel or sweaters, opt for a soft, lightweight top or robe that zips or buttons up the front.
Within a day or two after surgery, you may be able to take a shower. It’s best to sit down on a shower chair because you may experience dizziness, muscle spasms, or pain and you certainly don’t want to fall in the shower.
Lymphedema is a common side effect of a mastectomy, impacting 90% of women within 3 years of breast cancer treatment. Get fitted for a post-op garment and lymphedema sleeve prior to surgery so it’s available when you need it.
Do not attempt to chop and cut up food, vacuum, or undertake any housework until you are healed. Ask your spouse, children (if they are old enough), other family members, or friends to help out. Depending on where you live, you should be able to hire outside agencies to help with meals, housework, and childcare, some of which are sliding scale based on income. The American Cancer Society has a vast number of resources available, many of which are free, searchable by zip code.
Returning to work:
One survivor who returned to work too soon learned from her mistake and suggested women wait a minimum of 3 weeks after major surgery before returning to work. Doing so too quickly can cause complications, especially if you had reconstructive surgery at the same time as the mastectomy.
Try not to withdraw and feel sorry for yourself. Cry when you need to and laugh if possible, join a support group when you are ready, and by all means, talk to your loved ones and close friends about your feelings. The road to recovery can be a long one, but no matter how heavy your body and heart feel during the mastectomy process, one day you will celebrate your success. You’ll wake up and be pleasantly surprised how good you feel!
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