Recovery after your operations

Your breast care nurse will give you advice and support before and after surgery to help with your recovery.

When you wake up, you will have a drip (infusion) into a vein in the back of your hand or in your arm. It will be removed when you are able to drink enough.

After reconstructive surgery using tissue flaps

If you are having reconstruction surgery using tissue flaps, you will also have a catheter to drain urine from your bladder. This will be taken out once you are able to get up and move around.

Immediately after surgery, your wound may be covered with dressings or sticky plastic strips. These are left in place until the wound has healed.

Your reconstructed breast will be swollen to begin with. The swelling gradually gets better over a few weeks.

There will be drainage tube(s) coming out of the wound(s). These will be attached to a small container to collect any excess blood or body fluid. A nurse will remove them a few days after the operation.

Once you are moving about your surgeon or nurse will tell you if you should keep the area dry or gently shower the wound with clean water.

Keeping the breast warm

If you have breast reconstruction using your own tissue, the reconstructed breast will need to be kept warm for the first few hours after the operation. Warmth improves blood flow to the tissue. You may have a special blanket called a Bair Hugger™, which circulates warm air over you. Or you may have thick gauze pads over the breasts.

Pain or discomfort

After any type of operation, you will have some pain or discomfort. Some women need painkillers for a few weeks after surgery. Make sure you ask for pain-relieving medicines if you need them. This will help you recover more quickly.

We have more information about managing pain after surgery.

Numbness

You will usually have some numbness or pins and needles across your chest or reconstructed breast. You may also have numbness under your upper arms.

These symptoms improve over months to years, but it is common to have some permanent numbness. Most people adjust to this over time.

Constipation

Constipation is common after surgery. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Increase the amount of fibre in your diet.
  • Eat fruit and vegetables.

Some painkillers can cause constipation. You may need to take laxatives while you are on these. Your doctor can prescribe these for you or you can get them from your local chemist.

Wearing a bra

You may be advised to wear a bra to support your newly reconstructed breast(s). A soft, supportive bra without underwires will be more comfortable to begin with. Ask your breast care nurse for advice.

If you have reconstruction with an implant, you may be given a Velcro® band to wear for several weeks. This sits on top of the implant and helps make sure they stay in the correct position. You should wear this during the day and at night.

Exercises

Your physiotherapist or breast care nurse will show you exercises to do. At first, you may have some discomfort when you move your arm. But it is important to continue to use your arm and do your exercises. You will also be given specific exercises to do if you had surgery to another part of your body, such as your tummy.

Going home

Your surgical team will let you know how long you can expect to be in hospital for after your operation. This will depend on:

If you have a breast implant, you may be in hospital for up to 3 days. After an operation using a tissue flap you may be in hospital for up to 7 days.

Possible complications after surgery

Bruising and bleeding

Bruising to the breast and donor site is very common after the operation. It usually goes away within 3 weeks.

In some women, blood may collect in a reconstructed breast or donor site. This is called a haematoma. It is most likely to happen in the first 24 hours after surgery. It can cause swelling and pain. If you have a wound drain, this will usually carry away the blood. But if the bleeding continues, some women need an operation to stop the bleeding and remove the haematoma.

Blood clots

Surgery and bed rest increase the risk of developing a blood clot in the legs after breast surgery. This is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). You will usually be given compression stockings to wear to try to prevent DVT. You will also be encouraged to move around as soon as possible after the operation. Some women may also be given blood-thinning injections for a few days after the operation.

We have more information about blood clots and cancer.

Fluid under the wound (seroma)

Sometimes after wound drains are taken out, fluid builds up under the wound. This is called a seroma.

If this happens, it may be left to settle on its own. Or you may need to have the fluid removed. A surgeon or nurse can do this with a small needle and syringe. The fluid can build up again, so it may need to be removed more than once.

Delays in wound healing

Wounds usually heal within 6 weeks. But sometimes wound healing can be delayed. This may be because of infection. Or there may not be a good blood supply to the wound.

Smoking, radiotherapy or being very overweight can delay wound healing. Stopping smoking (if you smoke) and eating a healthy, balanced diet with enough protein and vitamin C helps tissues heal.

Infection

When you go home after your operation, check your wound(s) regularly. Tell your breast care nurse or surgeon immediately if you have any signs of infection, such as:

  • redness or change in colour over the breast, around the scar area or both
  • fluid being released (discharge) from the wound
  • a fever (a temperature above 38°C or 100.4°F)
  • uncontrollable shivering (rigors)
  • feeling generally unwell.

Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to treat an infection. If you have an implant, you may need to go into hospital for observation. You may have to have antibiotics given into a vein.

We have more information on avoiding infection.

If you are having breast cancer treatment

Chemotherapy reduces the number of white blood cells in your blood. This makes you more likely to get an infection. If you have an immediate reconstruction, your doctors will wait until your breast has healed before starting chemotherapy. This is to reduce the risk of infection.

If you feel unwell or have any signs of infection in your breast or elsewhere after starting chemotherapy, contact the chemotherapy team immediately for advice. Your chemotherapy nurse will tell you about the signs of infection to look for.

Raised, thickened scars

In a small number of women, tissue along the scars may become thickened and red. This makes the scar wider and look raised above the skin.

If you have any concerns about your scars, talk to your nurse or surgeon. They can check that the scars are healing. If there is a problem, they can give you treatment to help.

Chronic pain

Pain usually gets better in the weeks following surgery. But occasionally, women continue to have pain for months or even years after the operation.

Pain that continues for a long time is called chronic pain. There are several different causes of chronic pain, and many of these can be treated. If you have pain that does not improve, tell your breast surgeon. They can do tests to find out the cause or recommend a treatment to help.

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