Mastectomy: What to Expect
Here’s what you can expect on the day of the mastectomy surgery and during the recovery period in the weeks following the surgery.
Before mastectomy surgery
In the hospital on the day of surgery, you’ll change into a hospital gown and wait in a preoperative holding area. Some hospitals will allow you to have one or two friends or family members with you in the room.
You'll probably meet your anesthesiologist before your surgery to talk about your medical history, any allergies you may have, and the plan for administering anesthesia during your surgery.
Your surgeon or their assistant may draw markings on your breast that show where the incision will be made. Usually this is done with a felt-tip marker. You’ll be sitting up while this happens so that the natural crease of your breast can be marked.
A nurse will insert an intravenous infusion (IV) line into your hand or arm and tape it into place. Soon after this, you’ll be given relaxing medication through the IV line.
Once you are wheeled into the operating room, you will be given general anesthesia.
After you’re asleep, a breathing tube will be placed through your mouth and into your windpipe to help you breathe.
During mastectomy surgery
A mastectomy without immediate breast reconstruction can take 1-3 hours. If immediate breast reconstruction is performed during the mastectomy, the surgery will take longer (about 3 to 4 hours for reconstruction with tissue expanders or breast implants and 6 to 8 hours for reconstruction with tissue flaps).
During the mastectomy, the surgeon separates the breast tissue from the skin and muscle. All of the breast tissue that the surgeon can see — which lies between the collarbone and ribs, from the side of the body to the breastbone in the center — is removed. Depending on the type of mastectomy you are having, your surgeon may remove other parts of the breast.
In most cases, your breast surgeon will also perform either a sentinel lymph node dissection (in which one to five underarm lymph nodes are removed) or an axillary lymph node dissection (in which about 10 or more underarm lymph nodes are removed). This is done to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.
Your surgeon may send the lymph nodes that were removed to the pathology department to be checked for cancer cells during the surgery. If the pathologist finds cancer cells, your surgeon may remove more lymph nodes during the surgery.
If you’re having a sentinel lymph node dissection, your surgeon will use a lymphatic mapping procedure to find the sentinel lymph nodes. This will be done either on the day before the mastectomy, the morning of the mastectomy, or during the mastectomy. The procedure involves injecting a radioactive liquid, a blue dye, or both, underneath the nipple or near the tumor site. The liquid and/or dye travel to the sentinel node or nodes, allowing the surgeon to see where they are and remove them. The surgeon may also use a small handheld device to measure the radioactivity from the liquid and check how much of it was absorbed.
If you’re having immediate breast reconstruction with tissue expanders, breast implants, or tissue flaps, your plastic surgeon will perform the reconstruction during the same procedure.
If you’re not having immediate reconstruction, the breast surgeon or plastic surgeon will perform a flat closure, so the chest will appear flat.
In the final stages of the surgery, your breast surgeon will check the surgery areas for bleeding and may insert one or more thin, flexible tubes called surgical drains in your breast area and/or armpit. The drains collect the excess fluid that can otherwise build up in those areas after surgery. Each tube carries the fluid outside your body and is attached to a soft plastic bulb that collects the fluid and that must be periodically emptied. After the drains are inserted, your surgeon will stitch the incision closed. The surgery site will then be covered by a bandage that wraps closely around your chest.
In most cases, your breathing tube will be taken out when you’re still in the operating room.
After mastectomy surgery
You’ll be moved to the recovery room after mastectomy surgery, where staff will monitor your heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, breathing, and oxygen levels. If you are in pain or feel nauseous from the anesthesia, let a nurse know so that you can be given medication.
After that, you may be admitted to a hospital room. You may be able to go home on the same day as the operation, especially if you had no lymph nodes removed, only sentinel lymph nodes removed, no reconstruction, or immediate reconstruction with a tissue expander or breast implant. Otherwise, you can expect to stay in the hospital an average of 3 days or less. If you had immediate reconstruction with tissue flaps, you can expect to stay an average of 2 to 5 days because your surgical team will need to monitor the blood flow to the flap.
Before you leave the hospital, your surgeon or nurse will talk with you and give you written instructions about the following:
Your surgeon will probably give you a prescription for pain medication to take with you when you leave the hospital. You might want to get it filled on your way home or have a friend or family member get it filled for you right away.
Your surgical team may use a new approach to pain management called ERAS (enhanced recovery after surgery). These protocols can control your pain for up to 3 or 4 days after surgery without the use of opioids, and can help you have a shorter hospital stay. Some medications that may be used as part of an ERAS protocol during surgery include lidocaine and liposomal bupivacaine (brand name: Exparel). Gabapentin (a nerve medication) and Tylenol may be used after surgery. You may want to ask your surgical team before your mastectomy if they can use an ERAS pain management protocol.
If you had a lymphatic mapping procedure before a sentinel lymph node dissection and blue dye was used, your skin, pee, and poop may be bluish-green for 1 to 2 days after the surgery. The blue dye can stain the skin at the injection site for months and sometimes permanently.
Ask your surgeon or nurse how to take care of the mastectomy bandage. The surgeon may ask that you not try to remove the bandage, and instead wait until your first follow up visit so that he or she can remove the bandage.
If you have one or more surgical drains in your breast area or armpit, they might be removed before you leave the hospital. Sometimes, a drain should stay inserted until the first follow-up visit with your doctor, usually 1 to 2 weeks after surgery. If you’re going home with a drain inserted, you’ll need to empty the fluid from the detachable drain bulb a few times a day. Make sure your surgeon gives you instructions on caring for the drain before you leave the hospital.
Most surgeons use sutures (stitches) that dissolve over time, so there's no longer any need to have them removed. Occasionally, you'll see the end of the suture poking out of the incision like a whisker. If this happens, your surgeon can easily remove it.
Your surgeon should explain how to tell if you have an infection in your incision and when to call your doctor’s office. Some signs of infection to look out for include fever, increased redness around the incision, and pus draining from the incision.
Your surgeon or nurse will show you an exercise routine you can do to prevent arm and shoulder stiffness and to help prevent the formation of significant scar tissue. Usually, you will start the exercises the morning after surgery. Your surgeon should also give you written, illustrated instructions on how to do the exercises. Ask your surgeon any questions you may have to make sure the exercise routine is right for you. Some exercises should be avoided until drains are removed.
If you have had any underarm lymph nodes removed, you will be given information on taking care of your arm and being alert to signs of lymphedema.
Lymphedema is abnormal swelling in the arm, hand, breast area, underarm, or torso. It occurs when the normal flow of lymph — a thin, clear fluid that circulates throughout the body to remove wastes from tissues — is disrupted. Lymph fluid normally drains from body tissues through the lymph nodes and lymph channels. When some lymph nodes and channels are removed or damaged during surgery, lymph fluid may not drain properly and can collect in the tissues on the side of the body where the lymph nodes were removed.
Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling, achiness, tingling, heaviness, tightness, or a feeling of fullness in the hand, arm, chest, or armpit area. Detecting lymphedema early increases the likelihood of successful treatment. There are also things you can do to reduce your risk of it or reduce the severity.
Learn about Lymphedema.
Your surgeon may arrange for a home health care provider to evaluate you at home within the first day or two after you return home from the hospital. Your follow up appointment with your surgeon should usually be scheduled for within 1 to 2 weeks after you leave the hospital.
Your doctor may instruct you not to lift objects heavier than 5 pounds for 4 to 6 weeks. Ask your doctor how long you need to avoid more strenuous activities (like jogging, tennis, or weightlifting) and about exercises and movements you can do while you are healing.
wearing a bra
The site of mastectomy surgery, and especially mastectomy with reconstruction, needs time to heal before you can wear a breast prosthesis or bra. Your doctor will tell you how long you may need to wait.
At-home recovery from mastectomy
It can take a few weeks to recover from mastectomy surgery, and longer if you have had reconstruction. It’s important to take the time you need to heal. Here are some general guidelines to follow at home:
Rest. When you get home from the hospital, you will probably be fatigued from the experience. Allow yourself to get extra rest in the first few weeks after surgery. Read more about managing fatigue.
Take pain medication as needed. You will probably feel a mixture of numbness and pain around the breast incision, the chest wall, and the armpit incision (if you had lymph nodes removed). If you feel the need, take pain medication according to your doctor’s instructions. Learn more about managing chest pain, armpit discomfort, and general pain.
Follow your doctor’s instructions on when you can take a shower. You may be instructed to take sponge baths until your doctor has removed your drains and/or sutures.
Continue doing arm exercises each day. It’s important to continue doing arm exercises on a regular basis to prevent stiffness and to keep your arm flexible.
Have friends and family pitch in around the house. Recovery from mastectomy can take time. Ask friends and family to help with meals, laundry, shopping, and childcare. As your body heals, try not to take on more than you can handle.
Be aware that your body will continue to adjust to the effects of the surgery over a period of months. You may have sensations such as tingling, burning, pins and needles, numbness, unbearable itching, pressure, and tenderness in the chest, arm, and/or armpit in the first few months after surgery. Your discomfort may go away by itself, or it may persist. The sensations are typically caused by the damage to the sensory nerves in the chest and armpit that occurred during the surgery. Talk with your doctor about treatments to manage these symptoms if they are bothering you.
For tips on preparing for mastectomy and recovery, read Before Mastectomy: 10 Tips to Get Ready for Your Hospital Stay and Recovery.
Getting your pathology report after mastectomy
Your surgeon will send the breast tissue and any lymph nodes that were removed during the surgery to a laboratory for testing. The tests will provide information about the characteristics of the cancer.
Just like the pathology report you received after your biopsy, you will receive a pathology report about a week after a mastectomy. Once all the results are in, your doctors will review the pathology report with you and discuss next steps, including the need for additional therapy such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormonal therapy, or targeted therapy. The treatment plan your medical team discussed with you before the mastectomy might change based on the test results in the pathology report from the surgery.
If you had a prophylactic mastectomy, the pathology report will tell whether or not any cancer is present.
Learn more about Understanding Your Pathology Report.
— Last updated on July 27, 2022, 1:54 PM