What to Expect When you’re Expecting — a Mastectomy

A cancer diagnosis reminds us of all that’s uncontrollable in life. As does cancer treatment. Because patients are not only warriors on the front line in the war on cancer. We’re also the battlefield itself; regardless of whether the bombs are dropped by the good guys or the bad guys, they still fall on us. We regain a feeling of control by learning what makes us feel better and what makes us feel worse. Some people prefer knowing as little as possible about the road ahead. But in the days before my bilateral mastectomy in the summer of 2006, I wasn’t one of them.

I wanted to know how I would feel afterwards, so I could plan ahead. But despite the many books and web sites devoted to breast cancer, I found nothing that would help me prepare. My knowledge as a psycho-oncologist wasn’t particularly helpful when it came to such practical matters. So, I consulted the true experts—other breast cancer patients. With their help and through old fashioned trial and error, I learned some very simple but helpful tips. I also learned that one of the ways we cope with terrible illnesses is by using our experiences to help other people. While I suffered through my surgery and the days after, I already had in mind the day when I’d use this knowledge to help others, the way others once helped me. Today’s that day.

Physical Therapy Exercises: If your medical team hasn’t already taught you physical therapy exercises to rebuild your range of motion after surgery, it’s worth seeking out a physical therapist who will. Even just doing the exercises every day helps remind us of what we do have control over in life. And the sooner you get back to feeling “normal,” the better.

Help in the First Days: When I asked another patient if I’d need help the first few days after my surgery, she had one question – what kind of refrigerator did I have?! When I said it was a Sub-Zero, she immediately warned me to have help on hand or I’d starve. It’s very hard to use the muscles in your upper body right after surgery (this is less of a problem if you’re having a single mastectomy). As it turned out, I needed help just getting into and out of bed or even opening a drawer or door, let alone tending to my 5 year-old and 10-year old.

Pain and Discomfort: Pain medicine is a wonderful thing. But be aware that it can be constipating. Believe it or not, this was the hardest thing I had to cope with after surgery. Make sure to drink a lot of fluids and eat fiber. Another surprise was what helped me with discomfort more than anything else once I stopped taking pain meds – a stuffed animal called uglydolls. They’re the perfect size, shape and texture when placed in your arm pits. (I have no connection to the company that makes them)

Drains: Some women are more bothered by drains than others. I had two on each side – a pretty camisole with a pouch for the drains made me feel and look better.

Exercise: Whatever exercise you can do, do it. It will help you heal faster, keep your body regular, and make you feel more like a warrior than a battlefield. You can start easy at first – even just a walk around the block. Then, every day, stretch your comfort zone and do a little more than you did the day before.

If these tips help you, don’t forget to pass them on. That will help you too.

Category: Cancer

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