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What's it like: To get a mastectomy

A mastectomy is a surgery to remove the breast. Someone might receive a mastectomy either to treat or prevent breast cancer.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: February 17, 2013

Lymphedema is not a common risk, but it can cause ongoing swelling of the arm on the same side of your mastectomy.

Does it hurt?

During a mastectomy, you should be under anesthesia and asleep, not feeling any pain. The amount of pain felt after surgery varies from patient to patient.

You likely will stay at least one night in the hospital. While in the hospital, your doctor might request for you to have a pain-control pump on your bedside. You can use the pump whenever you're in pain to provide yourself with more pain medicine within certain parameters.

Most patients need prescription pain medicine for about a week. You might start to feel an achiness, pressure or mild burning sensation around the surgical site. Also, the area around your incision could stay numb for a while.

For patients who have lymph nodes removed as well, you might experience soreness or numbness under your arms.

What's the recovery time?

If you have a desk-type job, you will likely be able to go back to work in one to two weeks. Patients with a more physically strenuous job might need to wait up to three weeks to return.

At first, you will have to limit yourself on things such as picking up heavy objects or participating in strenuous exercise. However, you should be able to begin walking on a treadmill or swimming after about three weeks, if your drains have been removed.

The drains are probably the most inconvenient part of the surgery, other than the discomfort from the procedure itself. Your surgeon will place those somewhere along your chest to help keep fluid from accumulating. Until your drains are removed, you generally aren't able to shower.

The amount of gauze or wrapping you have after surgery will depend on your physician, and thus, the amount of time you have to wear it will also depend on your doctor.

What's the follow-up?

Your doctor will want to see you shortly after surgery. The number of times you have to go back will depend on the stage of your cancer and how invasive it is, among other things.

After a mastectomy, some patients must undergo additional cancer treatment, such as radiation. This will depend on your specific diagnosis and what you and your doctor decide is best.

Source: Dr. Kertrisa McWhite, surgical breast oncologist; the Mayo Clinic; National Institutes of Health; Reuters.

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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