What to Expect After Mastectomy for Breast Cancer

Here’s how long recovery should take and what side effects you may experience.

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Along with coping with the diagnosis itself, people with breast cancer are faced with a difficult decision when it comes to their treatment options—since some options, such as surgery, may affect the look of their breasts.

“Being diagnosed with breast cancer is something that will shake a woman to their core,” says Jaime Alberty-Oller, MD, breast cancer oncologist and surgeon at Dubin Breast Center, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Breasts are obviously very intimately tied to femininity and how a woman will feel about themselves.”

Many women with early-stage cancers are given the opportunity to choose between total removal of a breast (mastectomy) or breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy). There can be pros and cons to both, so the choice to do one or the other is a completely personal decision.

For some, mastectomy may be a better option, depending on the type of breast cancer, the size of the tumor, previous treatment history, or other factors.

“I always try to reassure patients that if they need a mastectomy oncologically, that they should not fear the worst. Nowadays, especially because of the reconstruction options that we have, we are managing to make reconstructed breasts look as normal as possible,” says Dr. Alberty-Oller.

“The most important thing is to get the cancer out and do a surgery that is safe, oncologically speaking. That we’re taking out the cancer and we’re trying to avoid the cancer coming back in the future,” says Dr. Alberty-Oller.

If you have chosen to have a mastectomy surgery, here’s what you can expect afterwards:

In-hospital stay: A mastectomy is an inpatient procedure, so patients will often stay in the hospital for one or two nights after surgery, according to Dr. Alberty-Oller. If you have a mastectomy and reconstruction at the same time, you may be in the hospital a little longer.

Recovering at home: Before leaving the hospital, your nurse will likely give you information on how to:

  • Take your medications

  • Care for the bandage over the surgery site

  • Care for the surgical drain that helps to drain any fluid that may accumulate after surgery

  • Care for the stitches or staples

  • Recognize signs of infection or lymphedema (swelling in the arms or legs)

  • And stretch to improve mobility after a mastectomy.

Side effects: There are a range of side effects you can expect after a mastectomy surgery, including:

  • Pain or tenderness

  • Swelling at the surgery site

  • Buildup of blood in the wound (hematoma)

  • Buildup of clear fluid in the wound (seroma)

  • Limited arm or shoulder movement

  • Numbness in the chest or upper arm

  • Or nerve (neuropathic) pain (sometimes described as burning or shooting pain).

Recovery time: “I would say that a mastectomy patient should be able to fully recover within one to three weeks if they have not had reconstruction,” says Dr. Alberty-Oller. If a woman has had breast reconstruction, their recovery time may be longer, around four to six weeks.

A mastectomy patient should be able to expect full range of motion and to go back to their regular life within that time frame, he says.

Whether you chose a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, Dr. Alberty-Oller says it’s important for patients to get back to work and get back to their families as soon as possible, so “they can feel like this is something that just happened to me, and not necessarily sort of changed my life completely,” he says.