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How to Manage Recovery After Breast Cancer Surgery

How to Manage Recovery After Breast Cancer Surgery

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21


Getting breast cancer surgery (like a lumpectomy or mastectomy) is a major undertaking for your mind and body alike. Healing will take time and energy. To speed things along, you’ll want to follow common-sense health guidelines (i.e. good sleep, healthy food, low stress) and get as much support from your loved ones as possible.
But what about the nitty-gritty? Here’s a quick guide to caring for your body after breast surgery—from wound care and pain relief to fitness and wardrobe choices.

Incision care

After surgery, you’ll be sent home with a wound dressing over your incisions. This may be a clear, self-adhesive bandage or normal gauze padding. Your healthcare team may also give you a special bra to hold the wound dressing in place—or they may ask you not to wear a bra for a while. Some bandages are waterproof (allowing you to shower and wash as usual), while some have to be kept completely dry. You may also need to avoid shaving or using deodorant in the area while it heals. You’ll get exact instructions from your care team to help you avoid infection.
The incision itself will be held together with sutures, staples, or special medical tape (sometimes called Steri-Strips). The sutures may be dissolvable (which can take a few weeks), or a nurse may remove them during one of your follow-up appointments. They will also remove your medical tape unless it’s designed to fall off on its own.

Drain cleaning

Your surgeon may leave a drain (technically called a Jackson-Pratt drain) in your incision area. This prevents fluid from building up and ensures that your wound can heal properly. The drain is simply a tube leading to a soft plastic bulb. You’ll be given instructions on how to empty out and clean this bulb, and you may need to track how much fluid gathers every day.
Drains can be cumbersome, but with a little advice from your healthcare team (and some trusty medical tape), you’ll get the hang of it quickly.

Movement

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In the weeks and months after your surgery, you won’t be able to do heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or repetitive motions with the side of your body that was operated on so that it can heal. For many people, this is one of the toughest parts of recovery. Work, home maintenance, shopping, and many other daily tasks will be affected, so it’s best to start planning ahead of time. The more help you can get from friends, family, and neighbors, the easier this time will be.

Exercise

In the days after surgery, you’ll likely be very tired—but it’s crucial to get exercising again as soon as you can! Even light activity can help get your energy levels up and speed the healing process. Just as important, staying active helps you avoid potential complications, which range from mild (like constipation) to serious (like blood clots and pneumonia). 
A great place to start is simply by taking short walks. Don’t push yourself too hard, but gradually increase the distance you’re able to go. (Baby steps—like walking to the mailbox or up the stairs in your house—are good!) Your team will also teach you special exercises to keep your arm and shoulder flexible and strong. Aches and stiffness are common after breast surgery, so these are very valuable techniques to learn. Just make sure to work closely with your doctor so you don’t push yourself too hard or start exercising before it’s appropriate.

Pain relief

You’ll almost certainly have some pain after breast surgery—but exactly how much varies greatly from person to person. The good news is that doctors have a whole range of pain relief medications available—from gentle to strong, and from tablets and injections to salves and suppositories. Some people take simple NSAIDs (like aspirin and ibuprofen) while some use prescription meds. Still others use non-drug pain management techniques, like cold-packs, acupuncture, massage, yoga, and physical therapy.
The bottom line here is that you should stay in very close communication with your healthcare team about your pain levels. Remember—you don’t have to “tough out” pain. And in fact, waiting until the pain is severe before you seek help can actually make it harder to treat and require more medication.

Clothing choices

Your healthcare team may advise you not to wear a bra for some period of time after surgery. Alternatively, they may suggest that you wear a soft, non-wire bra, both day and night. It all depends on your body and the type of surgery you’ve had. Many people find that a soft cami is perfect for post-surgery recovery; some even have special pockets sewn in to hold drain bulbs. 
After a mastectomy, you might also be interested in a breast prosthesis. This is a piece of silicone or foam molded to mimic the shape of your breast. For many people, it’s a great way to fill out clothing and keep the natural contours you’re familiar with.

What to watch out for

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There are a few major complications you want to look out for after surgery, which your healthcare team will review with you in detail. These include the following:
  • Pain: Your pain should subside in the days and weeks after your surgery. As noted above, let your team know how much pain you’re feeling and make sure your pain management strategy is doing the trick.
  • Infection: Keep an eye on the incision and look for swelling, redness, pus, tenderness, and bad smells. 
  • Fluid build-up: Let your doctor know if you see a build-up around the incision of blood (hematoma) or clear fluid (seroma). This may need to be drained.
  • Lymphedema: If your lymph nodes were affected by the surgery, you may experience a build-up of lymph fluid which can cause your arm, hand, shoulder, chest, back, or sometimes feet to swell. This can happen months or years after your initial surgery, and it can sometimes be something you manage indefinitely.
As always, let your team know if you have any unusual symptoms or sensations, and never hesitate to ask them questions!

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at support@jasperhealth.com.