Most people who have a mastectomy recover well after the procedure and don't develop complications.
In most cases, it takes three to six weeks to fully recover.
After the operation
When you wake up after the operation, you will probably feel sore. This pain can be controlled with painkillers. It's very important to tell your doctor or nurse when you're in pain, because they can adapt your medication accordingly.
After the operation, you may have a drip in your arm so that you can be given fluids until you're able to eat and drink again.
Following a mastectomy, you may have one or more drainage tubes coming from the wound site. The purpose of these tubes is to drain blood and tissue fluid away from the wound to prevent it collecting and causing swelling or infection. Your surgeon will decide how long the tubes need to stay in for. It may be as short as 24 hours, or up to a few days.
The dressing over your wound will need to stay in place for at least a couple of days. During this time, it may need to be replaced and the wound cleaned. In some cases, the same dressing will need to stay on for a week or so.
You may have dissolvable stitches that don't need to be removed. However, some people have stitches or metal clips that need to be removed after 7 to 10 days. Your wound should have healed during this time.
Preparing for home
The length of your hospital stay will depend on the type of surgery you have, but you'll usually need to stay in hospital for about two or three days. However, it isn't unusual to only stay in hospital for one night.
Before you leave hospital, your specialist or nurse will talk to you about what to do when you get home. You will probably need a lot of rest. Gentle exercises may be recommended to overcome the stiffness of your arm and to encourage healthy circulation in the area that's been operated on.
Your specialist or nurse will discuss suitable bras and prostheses (bra inserts) if you haven't had breast reconstruction. If this is the case, you'll be given a lightweight artificial breast shape that you can put inside your bra. This is usually temporary, until your wound has completely healed. You'll eventually be given a permanent prosthesis.
After having a mastectomy, you'll have a scar going across your chest and under your arm, although the shape may be different if you had an immediate breast reconstruction.
Your specialist or nurse will advise you on how to look after your scar. If you're uncomfortable about how your scar looks, there are a number of possible treatments, such as further corrective surgery and using make-up, to cover the scar.
Read more about treating scars.
Recovering at home
Avoid the following activities during the first three to four weeks after surgery:
- driving – don't drive until you're confident you can handle the car
- lifting anything heavy or doing repetitive movements – such as vacuuming or ironing
- swimming or playing sports
Your specialist can advise you on when you can return to work.
Talking to others
Recovering from a mastectomy can be emotionally difficult. Some people find it helpful to talk to others who have had the operation, both before and after the mastectomy.
You can get information on contacting others who have had a mastectomy from your specialist breast cancer care nurse and from organisations such as:
- Macmillan Cancer Support – has information on groups you can join and a support line you can call for free 0808 808 0000 (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
- Cancer Research UK – provides advice on coping emotionally and a helpline you can call free of charge on 0808 800 4040 (Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm)
You can also find cancer support services in your area.