Undergoing a mastectomy can be daunting, but being prepared and knowing what to expect both during and after the surgery can help the process go so much smoother. While you won't be aware of the actual procedure occurring since you'll be under general anesthesia, the weeks following the surgery can present their own challenges as you recover. Being prepared and giving your body the time it needs to recover properly can make all the difference.
Recovery immediately after surgery
Immediately following your mastectomy you'll be moved to a recovery room for at least the reminder of the day/night. Most post-op hospital stays are three days or less, and some patients are even headed home from the hospital as early as the next morning. During your stay at the hospital, nurses will monitor your heart rate and other vitals and administer the prescribed pain medications. While a mastectomy is a major surgery, you can take comfort knowing you'll be back at home in your own bed in no time at all!
The weeks after surgery
You'll be excited to know that most patients are back to their regular activities within 4-6 weeks after a mastectomy. During this 4-6 week recovery period, patients can expect a fair amount of muscle soreness and discomfort. Your surgeon(s) will likely prescribe pain medication and a muscle relaxer to help manage discomfort while you recover. Women who have undergone a mastectomy should also be very careful in the weeks following the procedure- most doctors recommend not lifting more than two pounds for several weeks and to only partake in light exercises like walking.
Keep in mind that recovery times can vary patient to patient and also require additional time if the patient has decided to undergo a second cosmetic reconstructive surgery.
The months following surgery
While you can expect to be back to your regular daily schedule within a matter of weeks, there are some long-term changes that patients will need to take time to adjust to. These adjustments take as much or as little time as the individual patient needs to get used to the new way their body works.
Numbness: When your breast tissue is removed in a mastectomy most of the nerve endings in the chest are damaged in the process. This means you will likely experience numbness throughout your chest and underarm area following the procedure. In some cases these nerves may grow back, but patients should expect to have some permanent numbness occur.
As nerves grow back, you may also experience some "phantom pain" or "phantom sensation." If this becomes uncomfortable for you, the pain from these sensations can be managed with over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen at the recommendation of your doctor.
Physical appearance: Having a mastectomy can drastically alter the appearance of your chest. Even with cosmetic reconstruction, the scars and change to your appearance can take some time to get used to. The important thing is to remember that, at the end of the day, you made the most best decision for your heath. Your scars will serve as a reminder of your strength and determination to live a long, healthy life. If you find yourself struggling to cope with any of these changes, don't feel alone! Take the time to speak with a counselor or doctor until you feel at peace with these changes.
Strength: Because you'll be required to avoid lifting heavy objects or partaking in excessive exercise for some time after your surgery, you may experience some loss of upper body strength. Luckily this can be easily regained with a little hard work. Be careful, consult your doctor, and listen to your body as you start to get back to exercising so you don't hurt yourself.
It's important to note that some forms of reconstruction, especially the methods that use expanders to stretch out tissue and muscles, can significantly reduce the ability to use your pectoral muscles for exercises like pushups. In these cases, you will be able to use your pectoral muscles, but they will likely never return to their original state and functioning capacity. Consult with your doctor regarding questions around exercise before your surgery if this is an important part of your lifestyle and they can make a recommendation as to which decision is best for your specific case.
While undergoing any major surgery can feel like walking into a great unknown, rest assured that many people have gone through this process and returned to their daily lives in a matter of weeks. If you have questions before your surgery or during your recovery, never hesitate to reach out to your doctor. When going through difficult moments like these, a little knowledge and knowing what to expect can go a long way. Good luck!