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Your recovery after surgery will depend on the type of operation you have.
You’ll be encouraged to get out of bed and start moving around as soon as possible.
You may have a long, thin plastic tube attached to a bottle (drain) that fluid from the wound drains into. This is usually removed a few days after the operation. Some women go home with the drain and come back to hospital to have it removed. A district nurse can also do this at home.
If you had a mastectomy you may have a drip (infusion) in your arm to give you fluids for a short time after the operation. It will be removed once you’re drinking fluids yourself.
You’ll have a dressing covering your wound. This may be left undisturbed for the first few days. After this, you’ll usually have the dressings changed if there’s some leakage from the wound. If you only had a small area of tissue removed, your wound will usually heal quickly and you can probably change the dressings yourself. Your nurse will show you how to do this. How long the wound takes to heal will depend on the type of operation and how much tissue has been removed.
Any drains will stay in until they’ve stopped draining most of the fluid. This may take 2–7 days. When you go home, your wound and drain (if it’s still in) can be checked by a district nurse. Or you may be asked to go back to the hospital every few days to have it checked. If you don’t have the type of stitches that self dissolve, you’ll usually have your stitches removed about 7–10 days after your operation.
After a wide local excision, you’ll probably only be in hospital for a day. Most women have their surgery done as a day case and go home on the same day.
If you have a mastectomy, you’ll usually be in hospital for 2–5 days. But if you’re having breast reconstruction at the same time, you may be in hospital for up to a week.
You’ll probably have some pain or discomfort for the first few days and will be given painkillers regularly until it settles down. If you still have pain, let your doctor or nurse know so that you can be prescribed stronger painkillers.
For the first few days after a mastectomy you may have a pump called a PCA (patient-controlled analgesia) that you can press to give yourself painkillers. It’s usually attached to your drip.
Usually any pain or discomfort goes away as the wound heals. Occasionally some women find that they continue to have pain in their breast. Let your doctor know if this is a problem.
The area around the wound will be bruised, and there may also be a build-up of fluid that makes it swollen and puffy for a while. This should gradually disappear over a few weeks.
It’s not uncommon for fluid to build up around the wound (known as a seroma). The fluid gradually lessens as it’s absorbed by the body and usually stops within a few weeks. Sometimes, it may need to be drained off with a fine needle and syringe by your nurse or doctor.
If you’ve had a mastectomy, you may have some stiffness in your shoulder on the side of your wound. It’s important to do exercises to help keep the full range of movement in your shoulder and to ease pain and stiffness. You’ll be shown how to do these by your nurse or a physiotherapist. As you recover from the operation, you’ll be able to gradually do more exercise and increase your range of movement.
Breast Cancer Care has a leaflet with some recommended exercises.
In DCIS it’s not common for the arm to be affected because the lymph nodes in the armpit aren’t usually removed. However, some women experience these changes in sensation in the area of the breast and in the arm. This is because the nerves in the area have been damaged by the surgery. These sensations usually get better within a few months, but occasionally can be permanent.
All breast surgeries leave some type of scar, and how your breast looks afterwards will depend on the operation you have. Before surgery your surgeon or breast nurse will tell you what to expect. They may have photographs that they can show you.
You can also talk to women who have already had the surgery – you can contact them through Breast Cancer Care. Your breast care nurse may know of a local cancer support group where you might be able talk to someone who’s had a similar operation.
Many women who’ve had wide local excision (WLE) are pleased with the appearance of their breast after any bruising or swelling has settled down. You’ll usually have a small scar and sometimes a small dent in the breast.
If you’ve had a mastectomy or a lot of breast tissue removed, the change in your appearance can take time to come to terms with. After your operation, you may prefer to be alone when you see what your breasts look like for the first time. Or you may want the support of your partner, a family member or close friend, or your doctor or breast care nurse. After a few weeks the swelling will go down and the bruising will fade. The scar will gradually become less obvious.
Any change to your appearance can affect your confidence, and how you feel about yourself as a woman. You may worry that your partner may be put off by scars or a change in body shape. If you’re feeling self-conscious about how you look, talking with your partner about how you feel can help you regain some confidence. We have advice about the possible effects on your sex life|.
For some women, breast reconstruction| helps to restore their self-confidence, feelings of femininity and sexual attractiveness.
After a mastectomy, unless you’ve had breast reconstruction, you’ll be given a soft, lightweight breast form (prosthesis) that you can put inside your bra. This is sometimes called a comfie or softie. It’s designed to be worn immediately after the operation when the area feels tender. Your breast care team will arrange this for you.
When your wound has healed, you can choose a permanent breast form. This will match the size, shape and skin colour of your other breast. It’s made of soft plastic (silicone) and feels pliable. Different types of breast forms are available from the NHS. Breast Cancer Care can provide you with a list of stockists.
Before you leave hospital, you’ll be given an appointment to attend the outpatient clinic so the surgeon can check your wound. This is a good time for you to ask questions or discuss any concerns you have with the breast care team.
At this appointment, your pathology results will also be discussed with you. The tissue that was removed at your operation has been examined under the microscope and x-rayed to make sure all areas of DCIS have been removed.
If you had WLE, your surgeon will explain if the margins around the DCIS were clear or if you need another operation. Sometimes a small area of invasive cancer is found with the DCIS. Although this can be distressing news, it’s usually very early breast cancer, which can be treated successfully.
You can read more about this in our section on primary breast cancer|.
When you get home, it’s important to take things easy for a while. How you feel will depend on the type of operation you had. Although your physical recovery might be quicker than you expected, you may feel emotionally exhausted.
Try to get plenty of rest and eat healthily. Taking some light exercise, such as short walks, can increase your energy levels and help you feel better. You’ll be advised not to lift or carry anything heavy and not to drive for a few weeks. You can gradually do more as your wound heals. After a WLE, it may only take a couple of weeks to recover, but it will probably take longer if you had a mastectomy.
Don’t overdo things with your affected arm. Check with your breast care nurse if you’re not sure. Remember to carry on with the exercises you were shown in hospital.
Some insurance policies give specific time limits for not driving after surgery, so you may need to check this with your insurance company. Most women are ready to drive about 2–4 weeks after their operation. Don’t drive unless you feel you have full control of the car.
Content last reviewed: 1 February 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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