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What to expect before and after mastectomy surgery


October 26, 2019

Mastectomy is a treatment for women diagnosed with breast cancer or those who are genetically predisposed to cancer. The removal of one or both breasts, mastectomy surgery may involve removing just the breast tissue or, in some cases, the lymph nodes as well.

Data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality says their analysis points to a 36 percent increase of both single and double mastectomies between the period of 2005 and 2013, the most recent year for data.

Women on the precipice of mastectomy surgery will naturally have many questions concerning the procedure and projected recovery. The process of recovering is different for everyone, and not all mastectomies are the same. The following is a general idea of what patients can expect before and after mastectomy surgery.

Before surgery

A mastectomy is performed under general anesthesia, advises the nonprofit group Susan G. Komen. Therefore, patients should expect to undergo routine physical exams and may require a surgical pre-clearance from a doctor and the surgical hospital or center. Blood tests and an EKG may be ordered as well.

Prior to surgery, patients can begin making plans for childcare, meal preparation, shopping, work requirements, and more. As mastectomy is an invasive procedure, patients may experience pain and fatigue after surgery. Having various plans in play well before the surgery date can relieve some stress and help patients focus on their recoveries.

Purchase comfortable clothing that will be loose around the arms and chest. Zip-up tops or those with front buttons afford easy access. Some women also opt to get fitted for post-op garments, including a lymphedema sleeve. Lymphedema is a swelling of the area, and it is a common side effect. It is helpful to be prepared before such items are needed.

After surgery

Mastectomy surgeries typically last between two and three hours. Some may last longer if reconstruction is performed at the same time. Patients will be admitted to a hospital stay for a day or two and moved to a recovery room, and will need to be driven home upon discharge.

Expect to be bandaged and possibly have a surgical drain at the wound site. The nonprofit resource says the drain usually remains in place one to two weeks after surgery. Fluid will have to be emptied from the detachable drain bulb a few times per day. Sutures that are dissolvable will not require removal.

Patients should follow the recovery plans outlined by their doctors. Rest is most important during this time, so do not overdo exercise or other activities, although some movements to relieve shoulder stiffness may be advised.

Pain, numbness, itching, and myriad other symptoms may occur. Take pain medications only as needed and directed. Weakness is expected in the arms and shoulders. Ask for help lifting, moving or picking up items.

Emotional side effects can be just as profound as physical ones. Fear of the cancer, body image issues and a sense of loss can occur. Having a strong support team can help, as can speaking with a professional counselor.

It can take several weeks to start feeling like oneself again after mastectomy surgery. Women should not hold themselves up to anyone else’s standards and be patient and hopeful because this challenging time is temporary.


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