Written by Missy Grace
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Torie Croog
Preparing for a mastectomy can be overwhelming, especially when you're already stressed about other aspects of your cancer treatment. If a mastectomy is the right choice for you, there are many things you can do to physically and mentally prepare. Read our helpful guide from Missy Grace, a OneVillage Coach, on preparing for your mastectomy!
- Fill every prescription the doctor gives you, even if you don't think you'll use it. Better to have it and not need than need it and not have it. I found the muscle relaxer to be my best friend, way more than the pain medication.
- It'll be tough to lift your arms higher than shoulder height for a while, so move everything you think you'll need to counter height -- glasses from the top shelf in the kitchen, medication or skincare in your bathroom and other things like that. Put them in easy reach to make future you happy!
- Stock up on button-up pajamas and zip-up hoodies. It's hard to pull things over your head, so button-up and zip-up are best. I particularly liked to wear zip-up hoodies when I went outside since the bulk in the front from the zipper and pockets helped to hide the drains better than a button up shirt could (more on the lovely drains later).
- Get a packet of Hanes Men’s Stretchy White Tank-Tops. The neck is high, so they cover the lovely mastectomy bra, the armholes are deep so you can actually get it over your head and pull your arms through without raising them, and they're only $10 for a packet of 3 so you won't feel guilty throwing those ugly things away when you're done. It's gotta be the men's though, they've got the essential traits for comfort!
- Whatever post-surgery compression bra your doctor is going to put you in, get two. You're going to wear that thing 24 hours a day for weeks, so you'll want a second one to wear while you put the first one in the laundry.
- Invest in some pretty scarves! Not for your head (if you’ve already had chemo), but for around your neck. They help to hide all the lumps and bumps from your bra-contraption-batsuit.
- Get some 3" x 4" non-stick pads / bandages, some surgical tape, and a thing of baby wipes. (More on these in the post-surgery section.)
Day of Surgery:
- It's really not that bad. I think that the people in the waiting room have it way worse, just waiting there all day. The nurses and doctors will take such good care of you and before you know it, you'll wake up and it'll all be over. Again, I took every medication they offered to make me more comfortable.
I was given anxiety meds, nausea meds, and some pill that made me feel like I'd had 2 glasses of wine. It was practically a party when they rolled me back to the operating room.
- Nobody warned me, so I’ll warn you: you’ll likely wake up with a catheter. They don't hurt at all, but you know it's there, and some pre-warning would have been nice. Depending on when your surgery is scheduled, you'll probably stay overnight in the hospital. That can be difficult because someone is coming in to check on you every 2 hours and you get no sleep, so as soon as you can get up and walk around the next morning, do it. Then, you can get home and get some rest.
- If you've never had surgery before, there's a possibility the anesthesia could make you nauseous. I knew that would happen to me, so I get the patch behind my ear. You can ask a nurse for one of those, and they're awesome. But don’t touch it and then rub your eye. I made that mistake, my pupil dilated, and I thought I was having a stroke! LOL!
- Everyone is different, of course, but the pain for me really wasn't all that bad. I managed on Advil, Tylenol and Flexerall (the muscle relaxer); that was all I needed. But everyone is different, so fill that Percocet prescription if that's what they give you! And stay on top of it. If they say take it every 4 hours, do it. Don’t push to 5 to see what will happen. Stopping pain is way harder than preventing it.
I found that it hurt the most getting into and out of bed (your ab muscles will be crying!) so I usually had someone help me out and back in. But if you don’t have a person, you could use a cane, a walker, a chair, or pretty much anything to take some weight off. And stack those pillows super high so you don’t have far to go back.
- You'll have drains inserted on each side to help get rid of fluid and swelling, and while they don't hurt, they are pretty uncomfortable. For me, that was the worst part of the whole ordeal. They're stitched into your body, so you'll have another little scar on either side from the drains.
The whole thing is a total contraption, with a little canister at the end that looks like a rubber grenade to catch the liquid, as well as clips attached so they hook to your mastectomy bra (this keeps them from getting in the way). Like I said, the hoodies really help to hide them if you want to venture outside.
I had my husband drain them since I just couldn't look at it, and we wrote down the measurements of what came out – once in the morning and once in the evening. When they go under 30ccs per day, the drains can be removed, so be sure to keep good track. Getting to under 30ccs per day can take up to 2 weeks.
The liquid looks like tomato juice at first, then orange drink, then apple juice. It may sound odd, but also don't forget to milk the plastic tubes. Stuff can get caught in them and create a back-up, which you really don't want to happen. Gross, I know. Like I said, the worst part of all it by far. They'll be removed in the doctor’s office and it's not painful, but it does feel suuuuper weird. There's about 12 inches of tubing inside you, believe it or not, so you feel it when they pull them out. It's the strangest sensation ever, but not painful, so don't worry.
- With the drains in, you can bathe but not shower. You might need someone to help you in and out of the tub since you really won't have use of your arms. You can wash your lower body, but the mastectomy bra and drains are still in, so use those baby wipes to wipe down your arms and upper body. If you've already lost your hair from chemo, you don't have to worry about it, but if you haven't, go to the salon for a blow-out. You won’t be able to lift the hairdryer so definitely a good time to spoil yourself a bit.
- Your doctor will remove the bandages when ready, but you'll be in your compression bra for a while. Your entire chest area will be numb, meaning you won't feel if your skin or stitches are rubbing against the bra, so use those non-stick pads on each side until the stitches are all gone. It'll help prevent blood blisters and pulling. If your hospital uses glue on top of the stitches like mine did, that stuff can stay on for weeks. At around week 3, I got some baby oil and it really helped get the gunk off. Made a huge difference in how I felt, which was great.
- And speaking of feelings, try to be strong when you first look in the mirror. It's scary and emotional, but just have yourself a good cry and get it over with. Then you can either do reconstruction, get a cool tattoo over the scars, or just nothing at all. The power is with you.
- Speaking of reconstruction, if you're getting immediate reconstruction, you will likely have expanders in. They are waaaay harder than your final implants will be as they work to stretch you out. The stretching appointments at the doctor's office are super easy and don’t hurt at all, but if needles freak you out, don’t look. You'll probably be numb for a while post-surgery, so you won't feel a thing as they fill you up. The surgery to swap the expanders for implants is super easy and such a relief – there is a major difference between the two and you’ll feel so much better.
- Go for lots of walks when you're up for it, to get your blood moving. I think it really helps with recovery, at least it did for me.
- Your chest will be really tight, so you can use one of those high-density foam rollers to just lay on your back and stretch your chest out. Again, when you're ready. At first all I could do was lay on that thing for a few minutes, but gradually you can bring some arm motions in and get everything moving. Be sure to check with your doctor on that first. They have rules and guidelines for exercise, and you don't want to mess up your reconstruction or healing.
- If ever there was a time to practice self-care, it’s now. Give yourself space, peace, and room to create whatever you need for your healing. And know that you're going to do great. You’ve got this.
Missy is an executive coacher, cancer ass-kicker, relentless learner, adventure seeker, storyteller, connector and grower. Also a Pulitzer Prize winning novel reader. (Seriously, every single one.) She currently lives in Italy and truly believes that some things really do take a village.