With any surgery there may be side effects that you were unaware of. This is particularly true with women who have had a mastectomy. Many of us spent hours researching our treatment decisions. We spent extra time with our doctors asking questions to help us understand what we were getting into. Even after all that, we still don’t know everything – or we just simply forgot in amongst all that information being thrown our direction.
I’m currently three years post-mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. I know it doesn’t seem long, but three years is still three years and it feels good. Over those three years I have talked to numerous women who have sought out my knowledge in hopes that their questions could be answered, or that I might have added insight that their doctors failed to relay to them.
As always, I stress that I am by no means an expert in this area. Nor, do I hold a doctors degree to suggest what someone should do medically. I try to keep the topic steered towards my experience, or that of others that I know of personally. However, there are those times where I need to say, “If it was me, I would do…”
Many of those women wonder what to expect post-mastectomy. What are the side-effects they need to be aware of? I’ve created list of my top eight post-mastectomy issues to relay over to those who ask.
Infections can happen with any surgery. When you open up your body, you’re leaving yourself exposed. If you happened to start the reconstruction process with expanders, or even once you put implants in, infection can still happen. You have a foreign object inside your body, which may just want to reject that object. Watch out for a fever, swelling, redness, and added pain. Those are your signs to call your doctor for further instructions.
Lack of Sensation
When having a mastectomy, your breast tissue is cut away from your skin. This results in nerve endings being shredded. Some of those nerve ending may regenerate themselves; but for the majority of women, the end result is a lack of sensation. It’s hard to feel anything in the breast area: an accidental brush of someone’s arm walking by, something poking through your t-shirt or bra, even the intimate moments between you and your significant other are hard to detect.
Poor Range of Motion
A mastectomy is designed to take as much breast tissue as the surgeon can, this includes tissue in the arm pit. Right after surgery, you’re limited in your range of motion from the inflammation and tissue healing in your body. After time, you will gain back that range of motion assisted by exercise.
When breast cancer is present, surgeons will take a few lymph nodes (if not more) to determine the stage and spread of cancer. Your lymph nodes help filter out harmful substances. When those nodes are removed, Lymphedema may occur. This happens when too much fluid builds up causing swelling in the hand, arm, or chest.
Weakness is a common side effect to mastectomy patients, especially to those who proceed with reconstructive surgery. Your tissue has been injured due to the stretching and cutting during surgery. It may take time to regain that muscle strength. Take your time, but don’t ignore the muscles.
Pain immediately after your mastectomy will make you feel like you were crushed by a ton of bricks. That pain will subside. However, some breast cancer patients will be shocked to feel brief bouts of sharp pain in their breast months, even years later.
Losing a breast is difficult in itself, but having issues with your new physical image is just as hard. You’ll see the scars of where your cancer and breast once were. You’ll have difficulty finding clothes, especially if you only have one breast. You may not like the look of your implants or the way your chest looks if you chose not to do reconstruction.
Hearing the words, “You have cancer,” creates many emotional scars. From surgery to chemotherapy to radiation and for years later, many of those scars remain. It’s okay to feel angry and upset at the world for a while. But if those emotions last longer than you would desire, seek some help from a professional.
Angela Banker is a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a sister; she is also a young survivor, a caregiver, a supporter, and a fighter. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 33, and found herself empowered to share her story to raise awareness about breast cancer. Angela participates in Relay For Life, started the Sisters Beating Breast Cancer page to inspire others, and continues to "fight like a girl" with the hope that her daughter will never have to hear the dreaded words, "You have cancer."