A mastectomy is a type of surgery that removes the entire breast. It’s one of several potential treatment options for breast cancer.
It takes several weeks to recover from a mastectomy. However, some people may have a longer recovery period. Your recovery time can depend on a variety of factors, like the type of mastectomy that you had and your overall health.
Below, we’ll take a deeper dive into what to expect when recovering from a mastectomy. We’ll discuss how long recovery takes, what mastectomy pain is like, and when you can typically return to daily activities.
However, recovery can be longer for some individuals, potentially taking months. This can happen if you have a more extensive procedure, such as a radical mastectomy or if you have breast reconstruction during your mastectomy.
Your surgeon can give you a more specific timeline for how long your recovery period may last. Below, we’ll outline what you can generally expect, both in the hospital and after you return home.
In the hospital
After you wake up from the anesthesia, you may notice that you have:
- an IV placed in your arm to provide you with fluids
- a dressing or bandage to cover your incision and keep it clean
- a surgical drain to help blood and fluid drain from the surgical site
You’ll be given pain medication to help ease discomfort. It’s also common to feel a bit nauseous from the anesthesia. If you feel sick to your stomach, let the staff know, so they can give you some antinausea medication.
Most people who have a mastectomy only need a short hospital say. This is typically 3 days or less. If you have breast reconstruction during the same surgery, you may have a longer hospital stay, up to a week.
When you leave the hospital, you’ll receive information about your recovery at home. This can include:
- when and how to take your medications
- how to care for your incision, including how to bathe or shower
- which exercises to do to promote range of motion in your arm and shoulder and how often to do them
- what you may expect as far as pain, numbness, or other sensations
- how to recognize signs of complications, like infections or lymphedema
- when you can start doing certain activities again, such as household chores, driving, and wearing a bra
It’s very important to carefully follow all of these instructions after you return home. Doing so can help your recovery go as smoothly as possible.
The sutures (stitches) the surgeon uses to close your incision will typically dissolve on their own. Because of this, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to return to the hospital or a doctor’s office to have them removed.
It’s possible that you may go home with one or more surgical drains. If this is the case, get instructions from your surgeon on how to care for your surgical drains at home. These are typically removed during a follow-up visit.
Your surgeon will schedule a follow-up appointment about 7 to 10 days after your mastectomy. During this time, they’ll evaluate your progress, discuss any additional treatments (if needed), and address any concerns you may have.
It’s common to have pain or discomfort after a mastectomy. Because everyone experiences pain differently, the intensity and duration can vary between individuals.
Your surgeon may prescribe a pain medication to take after you leave the hospital. Try to have a loved one get the prescription filled when you’re on your way home, so you’ll have it on hand if you need it.
It’s important to take all pain medications exactly as prescribed. Acute pain from a mastectomy will gradually go away as you heal.
Chronic pain after mastectomy
Some individuals may develop chronic pain following a mastectomy. A 2018 observational study estimated that 20 to 30 percent of people who undergo breast surgery experience some type of chronic pain.
Chronic pain after mastectomy happens due to nerve damage. It’s most often felt in the areas of the chest wall, armpit, or arm.
In addition to general pain or discomfort, it’s possible to feel:
- numbness and tingling
- shooting or prickling pain
- burning sensation
- phantom sensations around the surgical site
Chronic pain after a mastectomy may be more common in people who:
- are younger at the time of surgery
- experienced breast pain before their surgery
- had high levels of anxiety or catastrophizing prior to surgery
- underwent axillary lymph node dissection, as opposed to a sentinel lymph node biopsy
- experienced acute, severe postmastectomy pain
- were treated with radiation therapy following surgery
There are many potential treatments for chronic pain after mastectomy. If you’re experiencing prolonged pain after the procedure, discuss your treatment options with a doctor.
Some examples of potential treatments include:
- over-the-counter or prescription medications
- topical anesthetics
- physical therapy
- relaxation techniques
During your recovery period, you may feel numbness around the site of your mastectomy. This feeling is due to nerve damage that can happen during the surgery.
In some cases, numbness may be temporary and fade over time as you heal, although your surgical scar itself will often remain permanently numb.
It’s also possible for numbness to be persistent or chronic. This can be treated in several ways, including the medications and therapies discussed above.
Now let’s explore when you may be able to restart certain activities after your mastectomy.
Keep in mind that the exact timelines can vary based on the type of procedure you have, as well as your overall health. Your surgeon will be able to give you more specific details.
Performing daily activities
One concern you may have is when you can go about daily activities, like household chores and running errands. It’s important to talk with your surgeon about which specific activities you can do when you get home.
You’ll generally need to avoid doing household chores and lifting heavy objects for a set period of time. This may be 2 weeks or longer. Because of this, you may want to ask a loved one to help you out with some of your day-to-day activities as you recover.
When you can start driving again typically depends on how you feel during recovery. For some people, this may be about 10 days after surgery. For others, it may be longer. You should be off narcotic pain medication before driving again. If you’re unsure if it’s safe for you to drive, ask your surgeon for their advice.
Generally speaking, you may be OK to drive if you’re able to make an emergency stop without causing pain or discomfort at the mastectomy site. You also need to be comfortable wearing a seatbelt.
It’s a good idea to take another person with you the first time you drive after surgery. Not only can this help you feel more confident, but this individual can also take over if you experience pain or discomfort while driving.
Returning to work
It’s not uncommon to take several weeks off from work while recovering from surgery — both physically and emotionally. The amount of time taken varies from person to person, but usually this ranges between 4 and 8 weeks.
When you return to work can also depend on the type of work you do. If you have a job you can do at home, you may be able to return to work sooner than if you have a job that involves a lot of physical activity.
Before you leave the hospital, you’ll be shown various arm and shoulder exercises to do during recovery. You’ll also be given a leaflet that has written and visual descriptions of these exercises.
It’s vital that you continue to do these arm and shoulder exercises regularly as you recover. They’re important to prevent stiffness and improve range of motion near where you had your mastectomy.
It’s also possible that you may be offered physical therapy during your recovery period.
You’ll likely need to wait 3 to 4 weeks before resuming other types of exercise. It’s likely that you’ll start out with gentle, low impact exercise and slowly increase in intensity. It’s best to avoid strenuous exercises until you get the OK from your surgeon.
Wearing a bra or prosthesis
The site of your mastectomy will need time to heal before you can comfortably wear a bra again. Your surgeon will talk with you about when this may be possible.
If you had a mastectomy without breast reconstruction, you’ll be given a prosthesis to wear. This is a soft, lightweight breast form that can be worn inside your bra.
Most people recover from a mastectomy without complications. However, it’s important to be aware of the signs of a potential complication so that you can seek help.
Contact your doctor promptly if you have:
- bleeding from the surgical site that’s more than you were told to expect
- signs of infection, including:
- redness, swelling, or pain around your incision
- pus draining from your incision
- symptoms of a serious blood clot, such as:
- an area that’s red, tender, or feels warm to the touch
- pain in your chest, particularly when breathing deeply
- unexplained swelling around the surgical site, which could be signs of a seroma or hematoma
- persistent swelling in your arm or hand, which can be a sign of lymphedema
Looking for help in planning your mastectomy recovery? We’ve assembled some tips below to help you get started.
Prep your home and supplies
When you get home from the hospital, your movements and range of motion will be more limited. With this in mind, try to prep your house and supplies ahead of time.
For example, you might not be able to lift your arms above your head for a period of time during your recovery. A good tip would be to place commonly used items — like clothes, toiletries, plates, and utensils — within easy reach.
It may also be difficult to sleep flat for a while. As such, you may want to look for a comfortable, but supportive, chair to sleep in during the early stages of your recovery.
Other things to consider having on hand at home are:
- a notebook for tracking medications or for writing down questions to ask your surgeon during your follow-up appointment
- a wedge pillow to help keep you propped up in bed or on the couch
- soft, comfortable clothing, focusing on tops with buttons or a zip in the front
- things that can help you while showering or bathing, including:
- a shower seat
- a detachable shower head
- dry shampoo
- cleansing wipes
- items to help with surgical drains (if you have them), such as:
- a drain lanyard for the shower, which can help to keep surgical drains from dangling
- a mastectomy drain apron or jacket, which has pockets designed to secure surgical drains
Ask for help
It’s likely that you’ll need some help at home in the days and weeks after your mastectomy. Prior to your procedure, reach out to loved ones to ask if they can help you with things like:
- household chores
- running errands
- meal preparation
Pack for the hospital
Put together a bag to bring with you to the hospital. Some examples of things to pack are:
- comfortable pants, such as yoga or lounge pants
- shirts that fit loosely and that can button or zip in the front
- shoes that slip on
- your phone charger
- a pillow for support
- something to keep you entertained in your hospital room, such as a book, magazine, or tablet
- assorted snacks
Be kind to yourself
Recovering from a mastectomy can be physically and emotionally challenging at times. Give yourself patience and space to recover. Know that, although it may take some time, you’ll eventually start to feel better.
In addition to physical feelings, like pain or fatigue, it’s also possible that you may experience many types of emotional feelings, including:
- grief or loss
- vulnerability or helplessness
- anger or frustration
- feeling overwhelmed
Try not to hold in what you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Talk openly with others about what you’re experiencing. When you do this, your care team and loved ones can help provide the support you need during your recovery.
Recovery from a mastectomy typically takes several weeks. However, for some individuals, it may take months. This depends on your overall health as well as the type of procedure you had.
When you leave the hospital, you’ll receive information about your recovery at home. This can include how to care of your incision, which types of arm and shoulder exercises to do, and when you can resume your normal activities.
It’s important to stick to your recovery plan. Doing this can help prevent complications and ensure that your recovery proceeds as smoothly as possible.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.