Breast cancer and accompanying treatment can be a grueling experience, both physically and emotionally. And while relief can come with successful surgery, recovery can difficult. Here is some information about what to expect from recovery and a few tips to make it easier.
Your Hospital Stay
After surgery, you will stay in the hospital for the first steps of recovery. How much time you spend in the hospital differs depending on the type of surgery, whether it was outpatient or inpatient, whether reconstruction was performed, and other factors.
A lumpectomy is traditionally an outpatient procedure. It does not require an extended stay in the hospital—less than 23 hours—as the stay is merely to give the surgeon and nurses enough time to make sure there are no adverse aftereffects. Once they are satisfied, you may leave the hospital to better rest and fully recover.
A mastectomy, however, can require an extended stay. When lymph nodes are removed, and breast reconstruction is performed, you may have to stay in the hospital 1-2 days. Without the reconstruction, this may drop to overnight, though this is still considered an inpatient procedure. More complex reconstruction may require a longer stay. Always ask your doctor how long they expect you will have to stay before you can leave the hospital.
Anesthesia keeps a patient unconscious, painless, and calm during surgery and is carefully catered to each patient’s needs. Medications can be changed due to an individual’s allergies or previous experiences. Anesthesiologists will also adapt their medicines depending on the procedure. For example, general anesthesia is commonly used for these procedures.
General anesthesia can, in a small number of people, cause adverse reactions and symptoms. A sore throat can come from the tube placed in the throat to help with breathing during the procedure. Nausea, vomiting, delirium, itching, chills, and muscle aches are common side effects. Some may be caused by accompanying pain medication, but each sensation should pass rather quickly.
As with any surgery, some level of pain should be expected after breast surgery. Initially, this will come from the surgery itself, based around the incision sites and where the tissue was removed. If lymph nodes were removed, there would likely be more pain. As healing begins, the pain will settle more when you are still and be triggered more by a range of motion. As the breast, breast tissue, lymph nodes, and underlying muscles are so central to the body, almost any movement of the body can affect this area. Your surgeon will inject local anesthetic during surgery to reduce post-operation pain.
To help control pain levels, your surgeons will prescribe medication that will drop off into over-the-counter medicines that will drop off into no medication when you are ready. When the pain is still severe, you may be placed on something like tramadol for the early days. You will be weaned off of these drugs and onto over the counter pain medication within the first few days to prevent complications.
When tissue is removed from a surgical site, there is a risk of seroma. Seroma is a build-up of fluid to fill in a suddenly empty space in the body–a place where there once was tissue, and now there is not. Seroma can be uncomfortable or even painful, and can sometimes scar. To prevent this issue, the surgical team will place a drain in the breast that removes any fluid that attempts to fill the healing space after a mastectomy.
After the surgery, you will be given instructions on how to care for your drains. You will be told how to empty them, what to look for in them, and when they will be removed. They will likely look like a small tube leaving–and stitched to–the breast that travels to a hand-sized bulb. This bulb will be kept in a compressed position, setting up a vacuum to pull out any fluids that should be pulled out.
The bulbs have measurement labels on their exterior so that you can easily see how much fluid has drained. You will have to keep track of these measurements as you empty, clean, and recompress the drains throughout the day. These numbers help determine how long the drain will stay in place.
Living with drains can be inconvenient until you get used to them. You must always be aware of the tubes, so they don’t catch on something. Though the bulbs tend to come with loops you can strap around your surgical bra’s straps to keep them out of the way, the tubes are still something to keep in mind. There are also belts and shirts explicitly made to hold drains and their tubes.
Bathing is also tricky with drains. While you have to wait until your doctor has said you will be alright to bathe in the first time, you should not submerge your drains, so a bath is not a good idea (for your drains or your scars). Most doctors recommend gently patting yourself clean and dry with a sponge bath.
There are a few factors that you need to pay more attention to in your drains than others. You should alert your surgeon if you start to notice signs of infection, fluid leaking around the tubing, drainage increasing, decreasing, or thickening, the bulb losing suction, bright red drainage, or if the drain falls out.
What to Wear After Surgery
One reason surgery can be intimidating is that you don’t know how you’ll look when the scars have healed, and the swelling has gone down. Even with breast reconstruction, there may be changes to your appearance. Clothing can be a touchy subject. Not only will it fit you differently, but you will be sensitive for a time as your body heals.
Bras, in particular, will be difficult. Surgical bras are given and recommended in some situations, which offer some support while putting minimal pressure on incisions. They clasp in the front to avoid instigating the pain that comes from moving too much. A nurse can help adjust it easily while in the hospital, and it can be used to hand the drains to keep them out of the way of your arm.
In the first weeks after surgery, you’ll likely want to stick to bras or shirts like made in this way. Clasps, buttons, or ties in the fronts. Pants or skirts that can be easily stepped into. Nothing overly complicated or that has to be pulled over the head. This will pull on the arm and shoulder, and therefore the sensitive muscles beneath the breast. Advice commonly given by previous patients of breast cancer surgery recommend loose tops and shirts for a while. Give yourself time to adjust to your new appearance with some comfortable wear.
For the first year after surgery, bras should have no underwire. The seams should be soft, and the band should be wide to minimize any pressure on one particular place. Cups should be both full and separated. And you’ll likely want to be fitted by an expert for your new bra size. Make sure to find someone who has the training, perhaps at a lingerie shop or department store to ensure the best fit.
If you are using a breast prosthesis, you may want to find a bra with a bra pocket. These are small pockets sewn into the inside of the bra to hold a prosthetic in place. Mastectomy bras can be purchased with the pocket, or you can adapt a regular bra by sewing a pocket in yourself. Or, many find, a regular bra with a full cup that fits well enough will hold a prosthetic without a pocket. Of course, it all depends on your comfort level and what you like best.
Movement and Exercise
After breast cancer surgery–and other breast cancer treatment like radiotherapy–it can be essential to keep the affected muscles moving. Yes, they are sensitive and difficult to move. But that is precisely why you must exercise them. You don’t want them to weaken or stiffen further from disuse.
Exercise, in this case, does not mean a workout. Overworking your arms and shoulders in this condition would be easy and could be harmful. But simple exercises and movements to ensure that everything is staying in use will help in the long run. Within the first week of surgery–the first 3-7 days, if possible–you should start with the easiest movements. Use the arm on the side of the surgical site to comb your hair, practice deep breathing approximately six times a day, and raise the affected arm above the head (lay it on a pillow, so it is above) and clasp your hands open and closed 15-25 times. These are simple exercises you can do without straining too much or even getting out of bed.
Once you’ve healed more and your surgeon gives the okay, you may start other exercises. Again, these are not particularly strenuous. You are still recovering. Your muscles are not prepared to comfortably remain above your head long enough to pull a shirt on, let alone lift weights. These exercises are merely meant to keep the muscles in the area near the operation flexible. Side effects of any major surgery can be weakening of unused muscles and difficulty getting back to full strength. If you practice these minor arm exercises early, you can prevent these.
Some simple exercises can be done while sitting at your table. The Shoulder Blade Stretch is done while facing the table with your palms placed on its surface. Your back should be straight, the unaffected arm (the arm away from the surgical area) should be bent slightly. The affected arm (closest to the surgical area) should be straight. Without turning your body, slowly slide your affected arm forward until you can feel your shoulder blade moving. Relax, then slowly pull your arm back. Then you repeat 5-7 times.
If you prefer to lay down while you stretch, you can try Elbow Winging. This stretch helps the movement of the shoulders and the chest and is performed while lying on your back. It can do this stretch on a bed or the floor (whatever is most comfortable for you and your stage of healing). Once you are lying flat, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind your neck and clasp them together, bringing your elbows up, so they point up towards the ceiling. Carefully press your elbows out and down towards the floor. This will take a while. Your first attempt after your operation will likely not reach the floor. But as you heal, you will get closer and closer. Repeat this motion 5-7 times.
Be careful not to push yourself too soon after surgery. Wait until a surgeon has said it will be okay to exercise, so you don’t strain your wound. But remember that when you get the chance, moving is an integral part of healing.
Recovery is unique for each person. Some feel no aftereffects from anesthesia while others hate what it does to them. Some patients’ only clothing issues come from adjusting to the surgical bra they are given immediately after surgery, while others take longer to adjust to their new appearance. Recovery is not a straight path. It is a branching and varying road from breast cancer to health. But it’s not one traveled alone.
Not only will you have your support network of family members and friends, but your medical team is there to support you as well. The surgical team will work with you to find your best procedure, find your best medications based on experience and family history, and prepare you for recovery.
Dr. Valerie Gorman knows about the concerns and fears that come with a breast cancer diagnosis. But she and her team will work with you to create the best treatment plan for your needs and lifestyle and help you find the easiest recovery path.
Dr. Gorman’s team have walked alongside many people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and understand your situation. It is our privilege to walk with you, answer your questions, and help you through this difficult process.
Valerie Gorman, MD, FACS, is a breast cancer surgeon. She is board certified by the American Board of Surgery and serves as Chief of Surgery and Medical Director of Surgical Services at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Waxahachie.
- Certificate, Physician Leadership Program, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas (2010)
- M.D., University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas, Texas (June 1999)
- B.S., Biola University, LaMirada, California, (1994) Magna Cum Laude
- Residency in General Surgery, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Texas (June 2004)