Planing ahead for life following mastectomy surgery can make things easier and help your recovery. Here are some practical tips...
There’s no easy stage in what is sometimes called the cancer journey; every stage, from pre-diagnosis onwards brings its particular challenges. Initial tests make you apprehensive; a confirmed diagnosis puts you into shock and then, before you know it, you’re on the hamster wheel of treatment, whatever your treatment involves. You’re trying to get your head round so many things, including telling loved ones, telling your employer, and finding out as much as you can about what to expect and how best to take care of yourself during treatment and beyond.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and have been advised that you will need a mastectomy of any kind, you may also tip over into a form of grief. A mastectomy, like any radical surgery, is going to alter your appearance in what will seem like a life-changing way. The prospect can be overwhelming even for the most positive person and even if your prognosis for recovery is good.
We’ve put together a roundup of things to be aware of, or think about, that we hope will reassure you and make preparing for life after a mastectomy just that little bit easier.
Talk to your breast cancer specialist nurse
You’ll almost certainly be feeling anxious about your mastectomy so it’s a good idea to make a list of your questions and go through them with your breast cancer nurse before surgery.
They’re very understanding, as well as knowledgeable, and no matter how odd or embarrassing you think a question might be, the chances are that someone else will have asked the same question before. You can talk to your breast care nurse about every aspect and at every stage of your treatment, and after treatment is finished. Think of your nurse as your best friend.
Preparing for early post-mastectomy days
It takes time to recover from a mastectomy and if you’ve had some or all of the lymph nodes in your armpit removed, you’ll find that your range of arm and shoulder movement is much more restricted. You shouldn’t and won’t be able to do any heavy lifting, so it’s worth spending some time before surgery organising things at home to make life easier, for example, make sure that anything you need to use daily or frequently is easy to reach.
Fill the fridge and freezer – and eat well
Do a big shop before you go into hospital and make sure that you have a good supply of your favourite foods. You may not feel like eating much but having good, easily prepared food that you enjoy makes such a difference and will help your recovery. Fill the freezer with nourishing ready meals, either that you have made beforehand or from your favourite frozen food range. If you live alone or have no-one else who is able to do food shopping, opt for home deliveries, such as a weekly fruit and veg box, for the first few weeks after surgery.
What to wear – post-surgery clothes
Go through all your clothes and put together a capsule wardrobe of soft, comfortable items that you can easily slip your arms into, or step into after surgery. Natural fabrics like cotton silk or bamboo are ideal and have some warm wraps or shawls and one or two throws or blankets so that you don’t get chilly while you are resting. Try to avoid clothes with back-fastenings, tight sleeves, or too many buttons.
Indulge yourself with films, box sets and magazines!
You’ll be resting more than usual in the first few weeks after surgery so why not use the time to catch up on all those box sets or films you’ve wanted to watch? It’s a good idea to put together a list and order them beforehand. Most larger libraries also have a good DVD selection of films and television series, so call into your nearest library to see what’s on offer. Many people find that concentration can be a challenge for the first few weeks after surgery and even the keen readers can find it hard to get through a book, so magazines are ideal.
Planning for the long-term after a mastectomy
Feeling good and learning to accept the way you look
A mastectomy alters your appearance and posture and this can easily affect your self-confidence. Everyone reacts in their own way so don’t be hard on yourself if you are struggling to accept the changes in the way you look. It’s generally agreed that the sooner you feel ready to look at yourself in the mirror, the sooner you become used to the new you.
If you have a partner, encourage them to be as brave as you, as it is an important first step towards reconnecting and rebuilding intimacy. Breast Cancer Care has some excellent advice on how to do this step by step.
Breast prostheses and nipples
If you are not having breast reconstruction during your mastectomy or you are having reconstruction at a later stage, your breast care nurse may recommend using an extra gentle breast prosthesis (artificial breast form) like this one.
A prosthesis sits neatly inside your bra and will help to give your breast a more even look – so wearing one could help to restore your sense of self-esteem too.
If you have had a nipple removed during surgery, you can also use an easy-on, easy-off self-adhesive artificial nipple for a more natural look.
What to wear post-surgery - bras, swimwear and activewear
Do ask your breast care nurse for advice on how to choose a post-mastectomy bra. It’s important to have a style that fits well so if you have a local lingerie store, a department store with a lingerie section, that offers a bra fitting service, you might want to go along for an initial fitting.
Post-surgery bras now come in a range of styles, including compression bras, which help reduce swelling, irritation and lymphoedema, front-fastening bras which are ideal if you have limited arm and shoulder mobility, and non-wired tankini tops.
If you have to use a drain post-surgery, there’s an innovative bra and robe combination called a Brobe. As well as a specially designed front-fastening bra, it has pockets to hold drains and easy access sleeves.
If you’re planning a holiday or are a keen swimmer look for post-mastectomy swimwear. The best styles are cut higher under the arm for security, have inbuilt pockets for breast forms, and special cup shaping that holds the breast form close to the chests.
And once you are ready to return to exercise, whether it’s yoga, Pilates, circuit training or running, for example, do make sure you wear a post-surgery sports bra. Look for one that gives you extra support, is moisture-wicking, wire free and seamless.
Mastectomy tattoos - Make a feature of the new you
Post-mastectomy tattoos are proving to be a popular third choice, an alternative to breast reconstruction or no reconstruction. If the idea appeals, you’ll need to wait to have them done until your mastectomy wound has completely healed and your immune system has recovered but that gives you time to think about and choose a tattoo design.
Kris Hallenga was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal breast cancer at 23 but, 10 years on, she is leading a busy active life: she founded CoppaFeel!, the breast cancer awareness charity for younger women. Three years ago, Kris decided to have a mastectomy tattoo; it features a tightrope artist, ‘…to represent the balance of any illness with life and everything else.’ You can read Kris’s story here.
Find out more in our article on mastectomy tattoos here.
Organisations that offer breast cancer advice, information and support:
- Live Better With articles on all aspects of mastectomy, including Preparing for a mastectomy: what to expect
Visit the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum – for information, advice, and tips on getting ready for life after a mastectomy and to share your own questions and suggestions.