If you’re having a mastectomy, you can expect to stay in the hospital for anywhere from one night to several nights, depending on whether you’ll also be having lymph nodes removed (axillary lymph node dissection) and/or breast reconstruction. You’ll then recover at home for a few weeks or more.
Generally, you’ll be instructed not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk for a few weeks. The more involved your surgery is, the longer your recovery will be and the more restrictions you’ll have on physical activities such as pushing, pulling, and lifting your arms over your head. Talk to your treatment team at your pre-surgical visit about what to expect. Ask about how many incisions and surgical drains you’ll have, how to care for them, and whether they’ll limit activities such as showering and light exercise.
Below, members of the Breastcancer.org Community share their top ten tips for what you can do before your mastectomy to prepare for your recovery in the hospital and at home. You can find an interactive/printable version of this list at the bottom of this page.
Preparing for your hospital stay
1. Pack a bag with comfortable, easy-on clothing: Even if you’re just staying the night, you’ll need something to wear home. If you’re staying longer, you’ll likely grow tired of the hospital gown. Pack some open-front sweat jackets or cotton or flannel shirts that zip, tie, or button easily — nothing you need to pull on over your head. Our community members also recommend loose-fitting pull-on pants in cotton or silky fabrics. A loose fit is especially important if you’re having reconstruction that uses tissue from your abdomen, as that area will be tender. (And nothing too fancy or expensive, as incisions can leak initially.)
Pack comfortable underwear, no-skid fuzzy socks (if you don’t want the hospital-provided ones), or slippers/moccasins with non-skid soles. No need for bras: you’ll wake up wearing a surgical bra that will stay in place for a while.
One note for during your stay: ask if you can get a second surgical bra to take home with you, so you can alternate them for washing.
2. Pack some items that can help you feel clean without showering: Showering may be off-limits for days after surgery, but hospitals typically provide soap, washcloths, and hand sanitizer. You might want to bring your own; some of our community members also recommend packing baby wipes for freshening up. Bring a hair brush, hair ties (for long hair), dry shampoo, and possibly a headband for keeping unwashed hair under control. Leave the underarm deodorant and body creams at home, unless you’re having mastectomy on just one side and your treatment team says it’s OK for the other side.
3. Bring along other items for your comfort — but limit what you bring: Think about what creature comforts you’ll want for your stay. Our community members recommend a neck travel pillow, reading glasses, books and magazines, puzzle books/ adult coloring books, and/or your cellphone or other electronic device of your choice with charger and headphones. Other suggestions: lip balm, eye drops, face and hand moisturizer, and mints or lozenges. You may wish to bring your own water bottle. If you’re a light sleeper, an eye mask and/or ear plugs could be helpful.
4. Make a plan for keeping loved ones updated: During and after surgery, your team will communicate with one point person about your progress and results. Make a plan for how that person will update others and who should be on that list. A group email or text is often most convenient. If your point person needs to make phone calls instead, try to limit it to one or two people who can then call others. If you’re staying more than one or two days, you can decide after surgery whether or not you want visitors. Use the same system for letting people know.
5. Plan ahead for a smooth ride home: Place small pillows in the car so you’ll have them to place under the seatbelt that goes across your chest and over your lap (if you had abdominal surgery as part of your reconstruction). Some community members recommend a lap blanket, too. If you’re prescribed pain medication, take some before you leave the hospital. Our members also suggest getting your prescriptions filled on-site before you leave the hospital or having someone pick them up for you at your local pharmacy. That way you don’t have to stop on the way home.
6. If you have a beauty routine, get appointments for the week or so before surgery: Have your hair cut and colored. Go to the nail salon — but make sure fingernail polish is OK with your surgical team (some say no, others say light colors only). Have your brows shaped or get a facial. Community members recommend getting these things done now, since you might be limited for a while.
Getting your home ready
Room by room, our community members offer tips for preparing your home now so you’ll be more comfortable after surgery. You’re likely to have some pain, fatigue, and limits on lifting, so planning ahead can make a big difference.
7. Prep your kitchen: Make and freeze some meals in advance and have other pre-made foods on hand (sandwiches, salads). Stock up on healthy foods such as fruits and veggies, nuts, and yogurt. If friends or family ask to bring meals, don’t be shy: tell them what you and your household members like to eat.
Move any frequently used tools or dishes that are on high shelves to lower shelves. Buy smaller, lighter sizes of milk and juice. If you use any heavy bulk items, such as laundry detergent or dry dog food, put them in smaller containers that are OK for you to lift. Get a jar opening tool or have someone open tight jars for you.
8. Organize your bedroom: Arrange your closet so that all open-front robes, pajamas, and shirts and pull-on pants are in one place and easy to access. Usually surgical drains are pinned to your surgical bra, so have some extra safety pins on hand. Some people like to cut a slit on the insides of the pockets of sweatshirts or robes so that they can tuck surgical drains in there. Some of our community members also suggest using a fanny pack or some other pouch system for holding surgical drains. (Just be careful of your abdominal area if you have incisions there.) Purchase a few comfortable, easy-on, front-close sports-type bras to wear after you’re no longer in the surgical bra.
Place everything you might need within reach, such as tissues, magazines, extra pillows, and your remote control. Small pillows, foam wedges, a backrest, and/or even a body pillow can provide extra support, since it might be uncomfortable to lie flat. Before you leave the hospital, ask the nurses how to get in and out of bed to minimize discomfort. Wash extra sheet sets in advance so they’ll be ready for you to use.
9. Equip your bathroom: If you’re allowed to shower before your drains are out, your treatment team likely will caution you not to get them too wet. Our community members recommend a shower chair and handheld shower nozzle as useful things to have. Others have used a lanyard with metal clips — like one you might wear to hold a nametag — to hold drains while showering. Purchase smaller-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body soap that are easier to lift.
Depending on your surgeon’s recommendation, other helpful supplies might include: sanitary napkins or nursing pads to place inside the surgical bra in case incisions leak; medical gloves for handling drains or changing dressings; small kitchen garbage bags for disposing of dressings; and alcohol wipes to run down the tubing attached to the drains (to help fluid move through it). They also advise getting non-childproof caps for medications.
10. Think of whatever else you might need to be comfortable in the weeks after mastectomy: Some of our community members purchased one of those long grabber devices that can be used to pick up items without leaning down or reaching up. Stock up on DVDs, subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, download audiobooks or podcasts, or get whatever else you need to stay entertained. If you live alone or are the only adult in your home, figure out a system for getting household tasks done, such as doing the laundry or taking out the trash, while you’re not able to do heavy lifting.
How to use our checklists
Use this checklist to prepare for your upcoming surgery:
- To save the checklist and use it on your smartphone or tablet or to print it out, click "Save and Resume Later" and then click the URL. You can also email it to yourself, family, or friends.
- We recommend you share this list with your surgical team to make sure everything is appropriate for you.
- Depending on your unique situation, you may not need everything on the list.
Written by: Kristine Conner, contributing writer
Audrey Berry, MSN, R.N., CBCN, certified breast surgical and medical oncology registered nurse at Fox Chase Cancer Center
Marcia Boraas, M.D., FACS, associate professor of surgical oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, PA; Breastcancer.org professional advisory board member