After surgery for breast cancer in women
You will be encouraged to start moving around as soon as possible after your operation.
Exercises that might help after surgery for breast cancer
Back to top
This video provides a general overview of cancer and its treatment.
The information in this video was correct as of 1 December 2011.
Tell us what you think of our videos to help us improve what we do.
You’ll have a dressing covering your wound, which may be left undisturbed for the first few days. The nurses will let you know how to look after it before you go home.
How long it takes to heal depends on the operation you had.
If you only had a small area of tissue removed, your wound will usually heal quickly. If you don’t have stitches that dissolve, you will probably have your stitches removed about 7–10 days after your operation.
This can be a complication of surgery. Signs of infection can include warmth, redness, swelling around the wound or discharge coming from it. You may also feel unwell with a fever. Tell your nurse or doctor if you get any of these symptoms, even after you go home.
You may have a long, thin plastic drainage tube attached to a bottle that fluid from the wound drains into. It is usually left in until it stops draining, which may take a few days. You can go home with the drain. A practice nurse or a district nurse may check it when you’re at home. Or you might have it checked and removed at the hospital.
Fluid collecting around the wound (seroma)
Fluid can build up in the area around the wound. This is called a seroma. It usually goes away within a few weeks. Sometimes your nurse or doctor may need to drain it off with a needle and syringe.
You’ll probably have some pain around the wound and in your armpit if you had lymph nodes removed. This may last a few days. The nurses will give you painkillers to take regularly until it settles down. After a mastectomy, you may need to take them for a week or two. Let your doctor or nurse know if the painkillers aren’t helping. They can prescribe stronger ones for you to try.
Stiff shoulder or arm
After a mastectomy or having lymph nodes removed, your shoulder or arm may feel sore or stiff.
It’s important to do the arm exercises that your physiotherapist or nurse shows you. This will help improve the movement in your shoulder and arm, and reduce the risk of long-term problems. You should start the exercises the day after your operation and gradually build up what you can do.
Breast Cancer Care has information about these exercises.
Numbness and tingling in the upper arm
You may have this if nerves in your breast and armpit are injured during the operation. This is more likely if you had all the lymph nodes removed. It may slowly improve over several months but is sometimes permanent.
It is common to have swelling and bruising after your operation.
It should improve after a few weeks, but let your breast care nurse know if it doesn’t. Wearing a crop top or sports bra might feel more comfortable until the swelling settles. If you had an SLNB, you may see the blue dye in the skin for a while, but this is normal.
After breast-conserving surgery the scar is usually small and in the area where the cancer was, depending on where the surgeon makes the cut (incision). A mastectomy scar is across the skin of the chest and into the armpit. After surgery to the lymph nodes, the scar is in the armpit and shouldn’t be noticeable from the front.
To begin with, your scar will be red if you have white skin, or darker if you have dark skin. It will also be firm and slightly raised. Over time, it will flatten and fade. Everyone’s skin heals differently. If you have dark skin or fair, freckled skin, scars can take longer to settle and may be more noticeable for longer.
If you are worried about your scar, talk to your breast care nurse or surgeon. There’s also more information about scarring after breast reconstruction on our website.
Coping with a changed appearance
Back to top
The first time you look at your breast or chest area after your operation, you may prefer to be alone or have someone with you.
At first, the area will look swollen and bruised, but this will settle in the next few weeks. In time, the scar becomes less obvious. Changes to your appearance can affect your confidence and feelings about yourself as a woman. They can also affect your sex life.
Some women find that breast reconstruction helps give them back their confidence and feelings of femininity.
If you have a mastectomy and don’t have immediate breast reconstruction, your nurse will give you a soft, lightweight prosthesis (false breast) to wear inside your bra. It’s often called a ‘cumfie’ or ‘softie’. You can start wearing it straight after your operation.
When your wound has healed, you can choose a permanent prosthesis. This will closely match the size and shape of your other breast. It’s made of soft plastic (silicone) and matches your skin colour. Your confidence will gradually improve as you get used to it.
You can get different types of prosthesis from the NHS and Breast Cancer Care, who can give you a list of suppliers.
Your recovery will depend on the type of operation you had.
It’s important to follow the advice you’ve been given by your breast care nurse.
Try to get plenty of rest and eat well. Do some light exercise, such as walking, that you can gradually increase. This helps build up your energy. It’s important to carry on with the exercises you were shown in hospital. You may need to avoid lifting or carrying anything heavy for a few weeks. Your nurse will give you more information, as it depends on the type of operation you had.
Some insurance policies give specific time limits for not driving after surgery. Most women are ready to drive about four weeks after their operation. Don’t drive unless you feel in full control of the car.
You will be given an appointment for the outpatient clinic to see the surgeon and breast care nurse. They will check that the wound is healing properly. They’ll also tell you about the tissue that was removed during surgery (pathology), the stage of the cancer and any further treatment you need.
Late effects of surgery
Back to top
Some women may have problems with the effects of surgery for months or longer after their operation. Tell your breast care nurse if you have any of these or if there’s anything you’re worried about.
This can be uncomfortable. It feels like a tight cord running from your armpit down the inner arm, sometimes to the palm of your hand. It can happen weeks or months after surgery and usually gets better over a few months. Some women need physiotherapy and massage to improve it.
Pain and changes in sensation
Sometimes women continue to have numbness, tingling or pain in the upper arm because the nerves were injured during surgery. Your doctor can prescribe low doses of antidepressant drugs or anticonvulsants (drugs to stop fits) to improve these symptoms. They help to reduce the pain caused by nerve damage.
Changes to your arm/shoulder movement
Arm and shoulder movement and strength usually improve after surgery. Doing your exercises helps reduce the risk of long-term problems. If you have problems, ask your doctor for a referral to a physiotherapist. If moving your shoulder or arm is painful, your doctor can prescribe you some painkillers.
Surgery or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes in the armpit can sometimes lead to swelling of the arm (lymphoedema). If you notice any swelling, speak to your breast care nurse or doctor.
The earlier treatment for lymphoedema begins, the more effective it can be. We also have more information on how to reduce your risk of getting lymphoedema.