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What to Expect After Surgery for Breast Cancer

How long you stay in the hospital will depend mostly upon your overall health and the type of surgery you had. It can also depend on what your insurance will cover, so you may want to check on this. Your doctors and nurses will explain the side effects you can expect with each form of treatment. They can also suggest ways to help prevent or manage these side effects. It is important that you let the doctor or nurse know if you have side effects. Below is a description of general side effects linked to breast cancer surgery. They’re listed in order of the most common to the least common.

  • Temporary pain. This can occur from the incisions (cuts).

  • Shift in weight or feeling off-balance. If you had large breasts, losing one or both of them can make you feel off-balance and make your neck or back hurt.

  • Tightness in your skin. The skin near your breast may feel tight. Sometimes your arm and shoulder muscles will feel stiff, too.

  • Stiffness in your underarm after lymph node removal. Gentle exercises and massage therapy can help with stiffness. You should avoid hair removal creams, strong deodorants, and shaving under your arm for about 2 weeks after surgery.

  • Lack of feeling in the skin on your breast or upper arm. When the breast is removed, nerves must be cut, which may cause short-term numbness. Usually most of the feeling returns within one to two years after surgery.

  • Phantom breast sensations. You may feel like your breast is still there. People who lose limbs often have this feeling, too. Usually the feeling goes away over time.

  • Lymphedema. If you’ve had your underarm lymph nodes removed, you may have swelling in your chest, arm, and hand on the side where you had surgery. While this is normal right after surgery, it can become a long-term problem at any time later. Be sure you understand what to watch for and what to do to help keep this from happening. 

  • Infection. Although not common, infection is a risk whenever you have surgery. Alert your doctor if you have any swelling, redness, warmth, drainage, fever, or sudden pain.

  • Blood loss. Bleeding after surgery is another rare side effect. If you have a history of bleeding, let your doctor know before surgery.

  • Reaction to anesthesia. This is also a rare side effect. If you or any of your family members have a history of reactions to anesthesia, you should let your doctor and anesthesiologist know before your surgery.

Your emotional and psychological health

Losing one or both of your breasts can be an emotionally difficult experience. After surgery, you and your husband or partner should take the time to talk about how you feel. You may feel that you need counseling. Studies have shown that most women don’t experience long-term depression or sexual problems after surgery for breast cancer. If you’re young though, you might be more likely to feel anger, resentment, or depression. Ask your doctor for the names and locations of support groups or counselors if you feel you need one.

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