Breast cancer as a young woman and mother.

Mastectomy Aftercare.

How to sleep, wash and stay well during recovery.

A mastectomy is major surgery, and as with any major surgery there is a period of healing that follows. For some time afterwards, you will have limited mobility, drains, bandages and general discomfort. It can be challenging to sleep, wash and remain comfortable throughout this time, so I wanted to share with you what I learned during my own recovery. 

How long is the recovery time after a mastectomy?

This varies from person to person, but you can expect to be in recovery for around 4-6 weeks. If you have breast reconstruction, that may be even longer depending on the type you had. Kirby this might be a good place to link to the “types of recon” article within the app. 

If you work you will require a minimum of one month off, and if you do a particularly physically demanding job you may need even longer. 

Dealing with drains after a mastectomy. 

After a mastectomy you will have between 2 and 6 drains placed in your side under the removed breast or breasts. They help remove excess fluid from the area and aid the healing process. They are, however, intensely uncomfortable and cumbersome. 

Your drains will be in for anything from 5 days to 2 weeks. As soon as they are not drawing out any more fluid, they will be removed. Which by the way, doesn’t hurt and feels blissful afterwards. 

In the meantime you have to carry them wherever you go. You can do this more conveniently by putting them into something such as a gift or hand bag. There are also more discreet drain belts and pouches available to purchase. 

Move slowly and be mindful of catching the tubes on anything. A tug at the drain site is not fun. 

How to sleep after a mastectomy. 

You will need to sleep on your back, ideally propped up, for around 6 weeks after surgery. If you don’t have reconstruction and you feel comfortable lying on your side or front before the 6 week timeline, feel free to do so. If you have reconstruction it’s important to follow the advice of your surgeon. Sleeping on your back helps reconstructed breasts stay in a better position while they are healing. 

In the first couple of weeks after the operation, it’s difficult and painful to lower yourself into a lying down position. Some women will sleep on a recliner or couch during this time. For a week or so, you will need the help of a loved one to gently help you in and out of bed, as well as up and down from a sitting position, particularly if you had a bilateral mastectomy. . 

I won’t lie, I found sleep difficult after my mastectomy as I’m a stomach sleeper. But there are ways to get comfortable. 

  • Use cushions or a pillow wedge under your pillows to prop you up at an angle of about 45 degrees. 
  • Place small pillows or a specially designed mastectomy pillow under your arm/arms. This keeps your arm from touching your sensitive underarm area and drains. 
  • Place your drains on the floor as gravity will help the fluid keep moving out of your body. 
  • Keep pain meds, water, lip balm, and anything else you might need overnight on your bedside table so that you don’t need to keep getting up. 

Showering after a mastectomy.

In the first few days following surgery, you might be feeling weak and your incisions will be fresh. During this time it is best to wash instead of shower. When you feel ready, use a warm wet washcloth and your favourite body wash to keep yourself feeling fresh. Don’t worry, no one expects you to look amazing right now. 

After a few days you might feel like taking a shower. If you do, the aim above all else is to keep your incisions dry. If you are still in the hospital, you can request a waterproof covering for your bandages. When you are home, it’s wise to only shower the lower half of your body until your bandages are removed and a nurse or your surgeon give you the go ahead to get your scars wet. Keep your drains outside of the shower at all times. If you feel like treating yourself, this snazzy shower shirt addresses the issues of keeping your chest dry and taking care of your drains. 

When it comes to washing your hair you will need the help of a loved one, especially if you had a double mastectomy as you won’t be able to lift either of your arms up. Stand in the shower with your back to them and tip your head back a little so they can wash your hair without the water running down your chest. You can also sit on a chair in front of a sink and tip your head back as you would at a hairdresser, but this position might be uncomfortable.   

If you feel dizzy or light headed, do not attempt any of this. A washcloth and dry shampoo will suffice until you are strong enough.  

Staying well after your mastectomy. 

  • Rest and movement. 

Listen to your body and rest when you need to. That said, there is no need for total bed rest. In fact that can be detrimental to your physical and mental recovery. As soon as you feel ok to do so, get up and walk. Even when I was still in the hospital I would get out of bed, put a show on my laptop, grab my drain bag and walk up and down my hospital room. 

The movement will make your heart beat a little faster, pumping blood around your body to prevent it from pooling and causing clots. It will also help you feel stronger faster, reduce muscle wastage and help your incisions heal. As the days and weeks pass and you feel up to it, longer walks outside are very beneficial. Not only does walking have all of the physical benefits without being overly strenuous on your post surgical body, it also releases those all important and so needed “feel good” hormones. 

Your surgeon will advise you on stretches and exercises to do with your arms in the weeks and months following your mastectomy. It’s imperative to stick with doing these at least twice a day to ensure maximum mobility and minimal pain going forward. 

  • Mastectomy clothing.

After your mastectomy you will need to wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes that don’t constrict you while you are less mobile. You won’t be able to pull tops or jumpers over your head, so button up shirts are a necessity. Pants that are easy to pull on with one hand and don’t require doing up buttons and zips, such as sweat pants and leggings, are also great. For the first week after my mastectomy I lived in soft cotton pyjamas like these ones

If you have reconstruction, your surgeon may give you a specially made compressive bra to wear. These bras are designed to hold the rebuilt breast securely in place, but are not super comfortable. You must wear the bra, day and night, for the time that your surgeon recommends to ensure the best results. After that there is a vast range of more comfortable, seamless, front closing bras available. I enjoyed zip front, sports bra style ones such as these, for their supportive and convenient qualities. 

  • Diet.

As tempting as it can be to comfort eat, a good diet rich in fruits and vegetables will help prevent the constipation and trapped gas that is common after surgery. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids too. 

I hope this helps you in your own recovery journey. Healing from a mastectomy might feel like a long and slow road, but I promise that it gets better incrementally after those tough initial few weeks. Be patient with your body, it has been through a lot. 

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