Mastectomy: Practical Tips for Pre and Post Surgery

Written by Geri Ann Higgins

“Is it masectomy or mastectomy?” 

This had been totally off my radar as a possibility in my life. Once I discovered I needed one, I realized I was unsure which way to say it or spell it. And, I’m a speller!

I certainly do now – check the title.

After my breast cancer diagnosis, I reached out to many women who had similar experiences. Some were recommended by friends, some were friends that had had experiences both years ago and more recently. I was grateful for all conversations. They provided me with important information and additional things to question and ponder. I met them for coffee, met them virtually over email, and conversed on the phone both locally and long distance.

Over the past two and a half years, I’ve shared my story and practical tips to a handful of newly diagnosed women. I see it as a way to pay it forward to the collective sisterhood. Listed below is information that may be helpful to those of you who will be undergoing a mastectomy – or who have a loved one moving through this experience. Those of you who need a lumpectomy may also find some of this information beneficial.

Pre-Surgery

  • I went shopping to buy: 
    • Button up and front zipper shirts because my arm mobility would be compromised post-surgery
    • A carpenter apron to tie around my waist to place drain(s) so they wouldn’t pull on my skin
    • Shower pockets with a strap to place around my neck for drain(s)
    • A seatbelt cushion with Velcro (the extra cushioning across the chest helped with the potholes and bumps as a passenger in the car)
  • Cleaned and decluttered areas of my home
  • Went grocery shopping to ensure there were plenty of fresh vegetables, black rice, wild salmon… and peanut butter cup ice cream!
  • Created a sanctuary space in my bedroom and in my living room for visits from friends
  • Brought up an old rocking chair from the basement and positioned it in front of a window for meditative “self-soothing” and increased circulation in my calves.
  • Froze some meals, yet benefited greatly from a friend setting up a “meal train” which involved setting up a cooler for people to drop food in that was right next to my front door
  • Set up a private online account where I could share my story to people I shared the link with – for me, it was Caring Bridge. I also gave my best friend administrative permissions so that she could update followers during and post-surgery.
  • Started seeing a Cancer Counselor to help me process all that was occurring. I still see her!
  • Lastly – and most powerfully – I took the precious time to thoughtfully engage in a personalized ritual to give thanks and say goodbye to my breast.

Post-Surgery Advice

  • For the first 48 hours, the post-surgery corset is very comforting. Many experience vulnerability once it’s first removed. Acknowledge and move through these feelings. Many shared how important it is to look at yourself every day, as the surgical site continually improves in appearance. Familiarity will only help.
  • Don’t get behind on pain medicine. Stagger your pain relievers so you are always taking something, as opposed to “chasing” your pain.
  • Pillows, pillows and more pillows. It may be hard to lie on your side(s) at first. Pillows can help with rolling over and assisting in moving to an upright position.
  • Sleeeeeeeeep. Sleep yourself well. I often did not get up until 11am. At first I felt guilty, but then realized that my body needed the internal sweeping and clearing in order to heal me more effectively. To this day I no longer feel I need to justify resting.
  • Start walking outdoors as soon as possible – nature’s fractals and body movement will help reduce cortisol levels and increase peace of mind.
  • Be mindful of the pectoral muscles (i.e. mugs are heavier than you think, not to mention a jug of milk! Pushing up from a side position in bed is difficult for a while).
  • Bruising – If hematomas develop, consider putting arnica gel on them (it helps the bruise reabsorb into your body more swiftly).
  • There will be numbness and nerve pain; it will eventually reduce, but may not completely go away. Although it improved dramatically for me, I do still have numbness in one area.
  • “Phantom boob” is real. Bizarre, but real. Just good to know! Your nerves are just trying to figure things out. Go with the flow and try not to get freaked out.
  • When it’s time to get your drains out, you may want to take your Tylenol & Ibuprofen prior to the appointment like I did. The removal felt weird, but it was not as painful as others had indicated. The women I had spoken to had done it without the Tylenol an Ibuprofen, so the medication definitely helped.
  • Set boundaries. Concerned friends and family wanted to visit throughout the day and evening. I was grateful, but ended up seeing too many at times and realized that I had to scale back. 
  • Try Meditation. Even five minutes can help with busy mind and pain management. Add some deep breathing and slowly increase to 10. Not getting results on your own? Guided meditations can be extremely helpful for beginners. Here’s a link to my “Take Five” series on YouTube that contains calming breathwork, gentle movement and a mini meditation with sound, all in five minutes.
  • Range of motion for your arms will be compromised at first. Full range – or certainly close to it – should return. Here is the link to breast cancer survivor Miranda Esmonde-White’s “Essentrics” videos. I started doing these once my drain was removed. There are four videos in total. This is the first one (intro). The others are served up right after each one finishes. You can also Google or search on YouTube. Here is video #2 – the 15 minutes of rehab exercises. #3 is a stress release video. #4 is Miranda’s breast cancer story.
  • Consider giving Qigong a try. Here is the link to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Foundation’s Qigong for Breast Health DVD . I started doing this DVD the day after surgery. After 30 days, I could do the full extension of all the arm movements. I still do it three times a week. At the end, you close your eyes and visualize yourself in vibrant health. I visualized myself kayaking on a pond in the summer (which seemed so unrealistic at the time!). Three months later, I went on my first kayaking outing on the Clyde River in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It felt like a dream come true! Visualize yourself doing something you love and being happy and healthy.
  • Once your scars seal up, slather with vitamin E.
  • Gently, and regularly, place your hands over your scars. The warmth and energy of human touch will help heal you on multiple levels.
  • Bras – Visit the Breast Health page on the Coobie store website – they have great bra and camisole choices for those who choose to have reconstruction and for those who don’t.
  • Make Appointment for Prosthesis – Since I chose not to get reconstruction, I made an appointment at a medical supply store six weeks after my surgery. The person who helped me was fully trained in finding the right prosthesis for each individual. Insurance coverage varies for this, so make sure to check your plan ahead of time.
  • Like Yoga? – You might want to check out a free online yoga4cancer class or find a local class here. The evidence-based yoga4cancer approach was developed by cancer survivor (and Vermonter) Tari Prinster and is taught worldwide.
  • Practice deliberate rest. This cannot be overstated. Allow your mind, body and spirit to heal. Time helps.

Sharing these practical tips brings a level of meaning to my experience. My intention in doing so is to make your healing, or supporting the post-surgical healing of someone you love, a tad bit easier.

If you have a positive tip from your pre or post-surgical experience, please feel free to add it in the comments!

Medical Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Medical advice must only be obtained from a physician or qualified health professional.

Geri Ann Higgins, owner of Fully Present, is a breast cancer survivor, Certified Holistic Cancer Coach, Certified Health & Wellness Coach, Registered Yoga Teacher, Certified Yoga4Cancer Teacher, Reiki Master, Tarot Consultant and Marketing, Communications and Voicework professional. Learn more at www.FullyPresentWithYou.com, on Facebook, Instagram or on YouTube @fullypresentwithyou.

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