Ruth Hennig: After Mastectomy Surgery: It’s the Little Things - CancerChoices

I’ve learned there’s a huge difference between having a lumpectomy and having a mastectomy, because I’ve now had both. Both are scary—what surgery isn’t?—but a mastectomy is “major,” as countless people have told me, and much more physically challenging in the immediate post-operative days and weeks. Full recovery from a mastectomy, when you reach your new normal, takes months before you are no longer constantly aware of how your chest is feeling.

Complementaryin cancer care, complementary care involves the use of therapies intended to enhance or add to standard conventional treatments; examples include supplements, mind-body approaches such as yoga or psychosocial therapy, and acupuncture therapies can help in so many important ways both as you prepare for surgery for breast cancer or any other type of cancer and during your recuperation after surgery.

In my last post, I wrote about how I prepared for surgery with therapies that helped me relax and calm fears as well as how I’ve aided my recovery from surgery with another menu of complementary choices.

But the little things matter a lot too. Even with an excellent breast cancer surgeon, I was left with so many questions about seemingly small post-operative issues that felt more scary or frustrating than they needed to be because it was hard to find answers. That’s not what you want when you’re in the immediate aftermath of surgery.

I thought that if I’m having trouble finding answers, then probably other breast cancer patients are too. So I wrote up a Frequently Asked Questions based on my experience and showed them to my surgeon. She liked them a lot and said she might share them with other patients. I hope they help you too.

Here are the most helpful items to have ready when you come home from surgery:

  • Two camisoles with pockets to hold your drains. You’ll wear the camisoles non-stop until the drains are removed so if you have two you’ll have a spare when you’re washing the first one. There are a lot of post-surgical camisoles to choose from. I liked the kind that closes in the front with a Velcro strip because it makes taking the camisole off and putting it back on very easy when you’re still having difficulty with range of motion in your arms.
  • A cloth belt with pockets made specifically to hold the drains while you’re in the shower.
  • A pad (“chest buddy”) to attach to your seat belt so that it doesn’t irritate your chest on the ride home from the hospital or any other time you’re in the car. You may use the “chest buddy” for several months post-surgery until the seat belt is comfortable across your chest.

Amazon has a good selection of post-mastectomy/breast surgery products. Each of these items can be found there.

Answers to some questions you may have

How long will I need to sleep on my back?
How long should I wear the chest binder?
Sometimes I have odd nerve sensations around my incisions. The most disturbing one feels like liquid (is it blood?) trickling across my chest and down my side. Is this a normal feeling?
In the first week after surgery, I sometimes feel faint, light headed or slightly nauseous. What can I do to feel better?
Are there exercises that are helpful in reducing stiffness and increasing mobility?
My biggest complaint post-surgery is chest tightness. What can I do to reduce it? When will it go away?


Ruth’s posts in this series

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About the Author

Ruth Hennig

Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.

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Ruth Hennig is a CancerChoices colleague and friend who has worked in the environmental field for over 30 years, including as the long-time executive director of The John Merck Fund until 2017.  Since stepping down from the foundation’s staff, Ruth has joined its board. Ruth has a track record of involvement in creating organizations that bring new capacity to the public interest sector, especially in health and the environment. In addition to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, she has helped establish or has been a founding board member of SmartPower, New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Baraka Community Wellness and IssueOne. She also serves on the board of League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Photography, politics, gardening and yoga are her special interests.

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