It can take only a few hours to surgically remove a breast, but months or years to recover from the physical and possible emotional damage. Here’s our guide, with tips from the Live Better With community…
by Hilly Janes
Around a third of the 55,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year will have a mastectomy. That’s a lot of women, but it means there is a lot of experience and know-how about how to live, look and feel better afterwards.
The first step on the road is to make sure that wounds heal. Be prepared to take four to eight weeks off work, accept your movement and ability to lift things will be restricted, and that you won’t be able to drive for at least three weeks. Try to enlist as much help as you can from friends and family, and do everything possible to help yourself.
Take your medication regularly – ask someone to remind you if you are feeling a bit foggy. Look out for infection and contact your specialist nurse if your wound is weeping a lot and/or is very sore. Wash instead of showering to keep your wound dry, or have a bath if someone can help you avoid getting your wound wet. Use gentle, unscented wipes as an alternative.
You will need plenty of rest to heal, but sleeping positions can be uncomfortable so consider temporarily changing your arrangements.
“When I returned home after my mastectomy, I found it impossible to sleep in bed, even sitting up, I was terrified of pulling the drains out at night. We very quickly established a temporary bedroom in the lounge, where I could be propped up without fear of falling sideways.” Live Better With community member
It’s normal for fluid to collect around your wound, and you may need to carry a drain around with you for a few weeks. If fluid doesn’t drain well, there is a risk of it getting infected (seroma) – contact your medical professionals if you are concerned.
Drain dollies (above) are attractive fabric tote-style shoulder bags to disguise your drain bag.
Getting dressed can be painful at first, so wear clothes that are really easy to get on and off and don’t worry about how you look. You have had major surgery and need to be as kind to your body as possible.
“Put scraps of silk cloth on friction areas where clothing hurts your skin . . .” Live Better With community member.
Gels creams and oils can all help soothe the itching, burning, swelling and pain that can occur when while scars heal.
A comfortable, supportive bra is essential. Look for one without wires, but that fits snugly and is in a soft, breathable fabric like cotton or bamboo. Front fastening is easier if you are not feeling very flexible, while satin, lace and gemstone trims add a touch of glamour.
You may need breast forms (prostheses) to tuck inside your bra or swimwear. Make sure that these have easily accessible pockets to slip the forms into. Breast forms come in all shapes and sizes. Volunteers at Knitted Knockers even knit and crochet them in fine cotton for comfort – and to raise a smile.
There are also several schemes for recycling bras and shapes for other women on the Breast Cancer Care website.
Some women even get beautiful tattoos to camouflage their scars.
“I didn’t like looking at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like undressing in front of my husband, or having a shower or looking at myself…. My tattoo makes me feel so good. I’m now 76 and I think that’s wonderful, I think I’m so lucky to have it.” – see how Liz made the decision
To regain your strength and mobility, it’s vital to do the exercises you should have been prescribed, even thought this will be painful at first. Once your wound has fully healed, activities like swimming, yoga and dance can all help you regain strength and flexibility, but the key here is to take it very gently. If you enjoyed exercise before surgery, it can help restore the sense of self that you may have lost when losing a breast.
Research shows that exercise can alleviate depression and suggests that women who exercise after completing breast cancer treatment live longer and have less recurrence. Just getting out in the fresh air for a walk can lift your mood.
Going over what has happened and worrying about the future is understandable, but it should not become a mindset. Mindfulness and meditation can all help you feel resist the tendency fret over what is in the past or might happen next – neither of which you can control. There are plenty of books, products and apps to help.
Above all keep doing the things you enjoy – go out for a meal, a country walk, to see a movie or meet friends at the pub, and try to stay “in the moment”.
It’s really important to eat tasty, nutritious food (that can also feed a family) to aid recovery and keep your weight down. This award-winning cookbook has lots of recipes to help you eat well after treatment.
Talk to your partner about what is painful or uncomfortable, and boost your confidence by wearing some sexy under- or nightwear. Try kneeling, standing or spooning positions if you feel self conscious about your partner seeing or touching your scars. Read our guide to cancer and sex here.
The loss of self confidence and identity that a mastectomy can trigger can be devastating – but not for all women.
“I was looking forward to the mastectomy. In my mind, it was a victory over cancer, it was being got rid of. I didn’t care about losing the breast, if it meant no cancer, then go for it.”
“It doesn’t bother me to have a uni-boob. I very rarely wear my prosthetic one.” Live Better With community members.
Photographer Amy Barwell was devastated when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer (she recovered) and took stunning pictures of women who had undergone mastectomies for a Stand Up To Cancer charity campaign.
“It was absolutely devastating when my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Amy said. “I wanted to shoot this project to raise awareness and show the defiance of women who remain equally as beautiful without breasts”.
You can also read the Live Better With guide to mastectomy here.