Mastectomy: 10 Insider Tips

by PJ Hamel Patient Expert

Getting a mastectomy—surgery to remove all breast tissue as a way to treat or prevent breast cancer—can invoke fear of the unknown. Here are some insider tips to help you be informed and prepared.

Sign your breast

Don’t be surprised if the nurse hands you a Sharpie and ask you to sign your breast just before heading into surgery. With malpractice laws being what they are today, doctors want to make absolutely sure they’re working on the correct breast.

Have enough of the right kinds of shirts

Make sure you have enough button-down-the-front shirts on hand at home, and bring one with you to the hospital. The last thing you want to try to do with incisions, drains, bandages, and sore shoulders is pull a turtleneck over your head.

Allow enough recovery time

The longer you’re in surgery, the longer the recovery. The rule of thumb is, for every hour under anesthetic, it takes your body a full day to recover. Keep that in mind, if you’re still feeling kind of woozy and tired five days after your eight-hour reconstruction.

Be prepared for results

Don’t be shocked at how awful your chest will look right after surgery. You’ll be swathed in bandages, probably bloody ones; and you may have quite a bit of swelling. But take heart; you’ll be looking (and feeling) MUCH better in a couple of weeks.

Accept possibility of side effects

The surgeon will inevitably cut and/or damage nerves in your chest area. Understand and accept that from now on, there’ll be areas of your chest that are numb or tingly. Luckily, like anything else – you get used to it.

Prepare for some pain

You’ll have up to four drains dangling from your chest/midsection after surgery, to drain fluid and keep the swelling down. When the draining stops, they have to be removed. The nurse might tell you, “It won’t hurt when I pull these out,” but it does – a lot. The good news is, it only lasts a second. Just be prepared.

You might be left with a scar

If you had a positive sentinel node and you needed further lymph-node surgery (a.k.a. axillary dissection), you could be left with a fairly major, looping scar around your armpit and up onto your chest. Often, doctors never mention this scar, so be forewarned.

Impact on driving

When you leave the hospital and they tell you not to drive for a certain number of weeks, it’s not because they feel you’re unable to handle driving. It’s because a sudden stop in the car could cause the seatbelt across your chest to do some serious damage to your incision or, worse, your reconstruction.

Physical therapy may be helpful

To prevent possible permanent shoulder damage, get physical therapy to restore your shoulder mobility, no matter what. The surgeon may not think you need PT so you may need to advocate pretty strongly for yourself. Don’t be shy--do it, or pay the possible consequences later.

Financial needs

If your group insurance policy or HMO covers your mastectomy, they also have to pay for reconstruction, and cosmetic surgery on the other breast to make them match – by law. Don’t let the insurance company tell you they won’t pay. It’s part of the federal Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act of 1998 – be prepared to remind your insurer of this law.

PJ Hamel
Meet Our Writer
PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via