This guide will help you get ready for your lumpectomy and axillary surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK). It will also help you understand what to expect during your recovery.
Use this guide as a source of information in the days leading up to your surgery. Bring it with you on the day of your surgery.Back to top
About Your Surgery
This guide has information about several types of breast surgeries. You may be having a:
- Lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy
- Lumpectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy with possible axillary lymph node dissection
- Lumpectomy and axillary node dissection
- Another similar surgery
A lumpectomy is a surgery to remove a malignant (cancerous) tumor from your breast. Only the tumor and a small area of normal tissue around it are removed. A lumpectomy is a breast-conserving surgery that allows you to keep your breast shape and, usually, your nipple.
During your surgery, your surgeon may also remove 1 or more lymph nodes from your armpit. A pathologist will examine the lymph node(s) to see if the cancer has spread to them. In most cases, lymph nodes are examined by performing a sentinel lymph node biopsy.
Sentinel lymph node biopsy
A sentinel lymph node biopsy is when the first lymph node(s) in your armpit that receive drainage from the breast tumor are removed and checked for cancer cells. These lymph nodes are called sentinel lymph nodes. If cancer cells spread, the sentinel lymph nodes are usually the first place they go. Your surgeon will identify the sentinel node(s) by injecting a special dye into your breast.
If you’re having a sentinel lymph node biopsy, you may have lymphatic mapping as part of your surgery. More information about this procedure is included later in this guide.
Your surgeon may send the sentinel lymph node(s) to the pathologist during your surgery. If the pathologist sees any cancer cells, your surgeon may then do an axillary lymph node dissection.
Axillary lymph node dissection
An axillary lymph node dissection is when most or all of the lymph nodes in your armpit are removed. The number of lymph nodes removed varies from person to person.
Breast seed localization
Some people may also need to have a breast seed localization. This is a procedure to place a tiny metal seed into the abnormal breast tissue. The metal seed will help your surgeon find the tissue during your surgery. If you’re having a breast seed localization, your nurse will give you more information about it.
About your lymphatic system
Understanding how your lymphatic system works can be helpful, especially when you’re having a sentinel lymph node biopsy or an axillary node dissection. Your lymphatic system has 2 jobs:
- It helps fight infection.
- It helps drain fluid from areas of your body.
Your lymphatic system is made up of lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, and lymphatic fluid (see Figure 1).
- Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped glands located along your lymphatic vessels. Your lymph nodes filter your lymphatic fluid, taking out bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and other waste products.
- Lymphatic vessels are tiny tubes, like your blood vessels, that carry fluid to and from your lymph nodes.
- Lymphatic fluid is the clear fluid that travels though your lymphatic system. It carries cells that help fight infections and other diseases.
Before Your Surgery
The information in this section will help you get ready for your surgery. Read this section when your surgery is scheduled and refer to it as your surgery date gets closer. It has important information about what you need to do before your surgery.
As you read through this section, write down any questions you want to ask your healthcare provider.
Getting ready for your surgery
You and your care team will work together to get ready for your surgery.
Help us keep you safe during your surgery by telling us if any of the following statements apply to you, even if you aren’t sure.
- I take a blood thinner, such as:
- Warfarin (Jantoven® or Coumadin®)
- Clopidogrel (Plavix®)
- Enoxaparin (Lovenox®)
- Dabigatran (Pradaxa®)
- Apixaban (Eliquis®)
- Rivaroxaban (Xarelto®)
- I take prescription medications (medications my healthcare provider prescribes), including patches and creams.
- I take over-the-counter medications (medications I buy without a prescription), including patches and creams.
- I take dietary supplements, such as herbs, vitamins, minerals, or natural or home remedies.
- I have a pacemaker, automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD), or other heart device.
- I have sleep apnea.
- I’ve had a problem with anesthesia (medication to make me sleep during surgery) in the past.
- I’m allergic to certain medication(s) or materials, including latex.
- I’m not willing to receive a blood transfusion.
- I drink alcohol.
- I smoke or use an electronic smoking device (such as a vape pen, e-cigarette, or Juul®).
- I use recreational drugs.
If there’s any chance you could become pregnant before your surgery, be sure to use a form of birth control (contraception) that doesn’t have hormones. For example, you can use a condom, a diaphragm, or a copper (Paragard®) intrauterine device (IUD).
If you have questions about birth control or want help choosing the type of birth control that’s right for you, talk with your gynecologist (GYN doctor).
Many people should avoid becoming pregnant during their treatment. If your doctor told you to avoid getting pregnant for some time and you want to have children in the future, you may want to think about freezing your eggs. For more information, read the resource Fertility Preservation: Options for Females Starting Cancer Treatment
About drinking alcohol
The amount of alcohol you drink can affect you during and after your surgery. It’s important to talk with your healthcare providers about how much alcohol you drink. This will help us plan your care.
- If you stop drinking alcohol suddenly, it can cause seizures, delirium, and death. If we know you’re at risk for these complications, we can prescribe medications to help keep them from happening.
- If you drink alcohol regularly, you may be at risk for other complications during and after your surgery. These include bleeding, infections, heart problems, and a longer hospital stay.
Here are things you can do before your surgery to keep from having problems:
- Be honest with your healthcare providers about how much alcohol you drink.
- Try to stop drinking alcohol once your surgery is planned. If you develop a headache, nausea (feeling like you’re going to throw up), increased anxiety, or can’t sleep after you stop drinking, tell your healthcare provider right away. These are early signs of alcohol withdrawal and can be treated.
- Tell your healthcare provider if you can’t stop drinking.
- Ask your healthcare provider questions about drinking and surgery. As always, all of your medical information will be kept confidential.
If you smoke, you can have breathing problems when you have surgery. Stopping even for a few days before surgery can help. Your healthcare provider will refer you to our Tobacco Treatment Program if you smoke. You can also reach the program by calling 212-610-0507.
About sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a common breathing disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time while sleeping. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). With OSA, your airway becomes completely blocked during sleep. OSA can cause serious problems during and after surgery.
Please tell us if you have sleep apnea or if you think you might have it. If you use a breathing device (such as a CPAP device) for sleep apnea, bring it with you the day of your surgery.
MyMSK (my.mskcc.org) is your MSK patient portal account. You can use MyMSK to send and receive messages from your care team, view your test results, see your appointment dates and times, and more. You can also invite your caregiver to create their own account so they can see information about your care.
If you don’t have a MyMSK account, you can visit my.mskcc.org, call 646-227-2593, or call your doctor’s office for an enrollment ID to sign up. You can also watch our video How to Enroll in MyMSK: Memorial Sloan Kettering's Patient Portal. For help, contact the MyMSK Help Desk by emailing email@example.com or calling 800-248-0593.
Within 30 days of your surgery
Presurgical Testing (PST)
Before your surgery, you’ll have an appointment for presurgical testing (PST). The date, time, and location will be printed on the appointment reminder from your surgeon’s office. It’s helpful to bring the following things to your PST appointment:
- A list of all the medications you’re taking, including prescription and over-the-counter medications, patches, and creams.
- Results of any tests done outside of MSK, such as a cardiac stress test, echocardiogram, or carotid doppler study.
- The name(s) and telephone number(s) of your healthcare provider(s).
You can eat and take your usual medications the day of your appointment.
During your PST appointment, you’ll meet with a nurse practitioner (NP). They work closely with anesthesiology staff (specialized healthcare providers who will give you anesthesia during your surgery). Your NP will review your medical and surgical history with you. You may have tests, such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart rhythm, a chest x-ray, blood tests, and any other tests needed to plan your care. Your NP may also recommend that you see other healthcare providers.
Your NP will talk with you about which medications you should take the morning of your surgery.
Identify your caregiver
Your caregiver plays an important role in your care. Before your surgery, you and your caregiver will learn about your surgery from your healthcare providers. After your surgery, your caregiver will take you home when you’re discharged from the hospital. They’ll also help you care for yourself at home.
Complete a Health Care Proxy form
If you haven’t already completed a Health Care Proxy form, we recommend you complete one now. If you’ve already completed one or have any other advance directives, bring them to your next appointment.
A health care proxy is a legal document that identifies the person who will speak for you if you can’t communicate for yourself. The person you identify is called your health care agent.
Talk with your healthcare provider if you’re interested in completing a health care proxy. You can also read the resources Advance Care Planning and How to Be a Health Care Agent for information about health care proxies, other advance directives, and being a health care agent.
Arrange for someone to take you home
You must have a responsible care partner take you home after your surgery. A responsible care partner is someone who can help you get home safely and report concerns to your healthcare providers, if needed. Make sure to plan this before the day of your surgery.
If you don’t have a responsible care partner to take you home, call one of the agencies below. They’ll send someone to go home with you. There’s usually a charge for this service, and you’ll need to provide transportation. It’s OK to use a taxi or car service, but you must still have a responsible care partner with you.
|Agencies in New York||Agencies in New Jersey|
|Partners in Care: 888-735-8913||Caring People: 877-227-4649|
|Caring People: 877-227-4649|
Buy a 4% chlorhexidine gluconate (CHG) solution antiseptic skin cleanser (such as Hibiclens®)
4% CHG solution is a skin cleanser that kills germs for 24 hours after you use it. Showering with it before your surgery will help lower your risk of infection after surgery. You can buy a 4% CHG solution antiseptic skin cleanser before leaving the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center or at your local pharmacy without a prescription.
Buy 325-milligram acetaminophen tablets (such as Tylenol® Regular Strength)
Acetaminophen is an over-the-counter pain medication. You’ll use it after your surgery to help manage your pain at home. It’s helpful to buy it ahead of time. You can get it at your local pharmacy without a prescription. Always follow the instructions on the container or from your healthcare provider when taking any medication.
7 days before your surgery
Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for taking aspirin
If you take aspirin or a medication that contains aspirin, you may need to change your dose or stop taking it 7 days before your surgery. Aspirin can cause bleeding.
Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Don’t stop taking aspirin unless they tell you to. For more information, read the resource Common Medications Containing Aspirin, Other Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), or Vitamin E.
Stop taking vitamin E, multivitamins, herbal remedies, and other dietary supplements
Stop taking vitamin E, multivitamins, herbal remedies, and other dietary supplements 7 days before your surgery. These things can cause bleeding. For more information, read the resource Herbal Remedies and Cancer Treatment.
2 days before your surgery
Stop taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Stop taking NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen (Advil® and Motrin®) and naproxen (Aleve®), 2 days before your surgery. These medications can cause bleeding. For more information, read the resource Common Medications Containing Aspirin, Other Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), or Vitamin E.
1 day before your surgery
Note the time of your surgery
A staff member from the Admitting Office will call you after 2:00 pm the day before your surgery. If your surgery is scheduled for a Monday, they’ll call you on the Friday before. If you don’t get a call by 7:00 pm, call 212-639-5014.
The staff member will tell you what time to arrive at the hospital for your surgery. They’ll also remind you where to go.
If you’re having a sentinel lymph node biopsy, you may have a lymphatic mapping procedure the day before or the morning of your surgery. This will help your surgeon find the sentinel lymph node(s) during your surgery. If you’re also having breast seed localization, it may be scheduled before your lymphatic mapping.
During your lymphatic mapping, you’ll lie on an exam table while you get an injection of a small amount of a radioactive liquid near the site of the cancer. During the injection, you may feel a stinging or burning sensation. The radioactive liquid will travel to the sentinel node(s) so they can be seen later during your nuclear medicine scan. While you wait for your scan, you can either stay in the hospital or leave for a while. You must return on time for your scan, so be sure to note the time you’re told to return.
When it’s time for your scan, your technologist will take you to the scanning room. You’ll lie on a narrow table while they take a series of pictures. Each picture takes 5 minutes, and you must lie very still during this time. If you feel uncomfortable staying in any position for 5 minutes, ask your technologist to count down the time for you. The scan will take 10 to 15 minutes.
The pictures taken during your scan will show the flow of the radioactive liquid and which lymph nodes absorb the radioactive dye. Your surgeon will use this information as a guide (or map) to determine the location of the sentinel node(s).
If you’re having surgery the same day as your mapping, a staff member will bring you from the scanning room to the operating room. In most other cases, you’ll go home after the mapping.
Shower with a 4% CHG solution antiseptic skin cleanser (such as Hibiclens)
The night before your surgery, shower using a 4% CHG solution antiseptic skin cleanser.
- Use your normal shampoo to wash your hair. Rinse your head well.
- Use your normal soap to wash your face and genital area. Rinse your body well with warm water.
- Open the 4% CHG solution bottle. Pour some into your hand or a clean washcloth.
- Move away from the shower stream. Rub the 4% CHG solution gently over your body from your neck to your feet. Don’t put it on your face or genital area.
- Move back into the shower stream to rinse off the 4% CHG solution. Use warm water.
- Dry yourself off with a clean towel after your shower.
- Don’t put on any lotion, cream, deodorant, makeup, powder, perfume, or cologne after your shower.
Instructions for eating before your surgery
Do not eat anything after midnight the night before your surgery. This includes hard candy and gum.
The morning of your surgery
Instructions for drinking before your surgery
You can drink a total of 12 ounces of water between midnight and 2 hours before your scheduled arrival time. Do not drink anything else.
Do not drink anything starting 2 hours before your scheduled arrival time. This includes water.
Take your medications as instructed
If your healthcare provider told you to take certain medications the morning of your surgery, take only those medications with a sip of water. Depending on what medications you take, this may be all, some, or none of your usual morning medications.
Shower with a 4% CHG solution antiseptic skin cleanser (such as Hibiclens)
Shower with a 4% CHG solution antiseptic skin cleanser before you leave for the hospital. Use it the same way you did the night before.
Don’t put on any lotion, cream, deodorant, makeup, powder, perfume, or cologne after your shower.
Things to remember
- If you wear contact lenses, wear your glasses instead. Wearing contact lenses during surgery can damage your eyes.
- Don’t wear any metal objects. Remove all jewelry, including body piercings. The tools used during your surgery can cause burns if they touch metal.
- Leave valuable items at home.
- If you’re menstruating (have your monthly period), use a sanitary pad, not a tampon. You’ll get disposable underwear, as well as a pad if needed.
What to bring
- A button-down or loose-fitting top.
- A supportive bra, such as a sports bra, to wear after your surgery.
- Your breathing device for sleep apnea (such as your CPAP device), if you have one.
- Your Health Care Proxy form and other advance directives, if you completed them.
- Your cell phone and charger.
- Only the money you may want for small purchases (such as a newspaper).
- A case for your personal items (such as eyeglasses, hearing aid(s), dentures, prosthetic device(s), wig, and religious articles), if you have one.
- This guide. Your healthcare team will use it to teach you how to care for yourself after surgery.
Once you’ve arrived for your surgery
Many staff members will ask you to say and spell your name and birth date. This is for your safety. People with the same or a similar name may be having surgery on the same day.
When it’s time to change for surgery, you’ll get a hospital gown, robe, and nonskid socks to wear.
Meet with a nurse
You’ll meet with a nurse before surgery. Tell them the dose of any medications you took after midnight (including prescription and over-the-counter medications, patches, and creams) and the time you took them.
Your nurse may place an intravenous (IV) line in one of your veins, usually in your arm or hand. If your nurse doesn’t place the IV, your anesthesiologist will do it in the operating room.
Meet with an anesthesiologist
You’ll also meet with an anesthesiologist before surgery. They will:
- Review your medical history with you.
- Ask you if you’ve had any problems with anesthesia in the past, including nausea or pain.
- Talk with you about your comfort and safety during your surgery.
- Talk with you about the kind of anesthesia you’ll get.
- Answer your questions about your anesthesia.
Marking your surgical site
Along with asking your name and birth date, staff members may also ask the name of your surgeon, what surgery you’re having, and which side is being operated on. Your surgeon or another member of the surgical team will use a marker to initial the site on your body that will be operated on. This is for your safety and to make sure all members of your surgical team understand the plan for your surgery.
Get ready for your surgery
When it’s time for your surgery, you’ll need to remove your hearing aids, dentures, prosthetic devices, wig, and religious articles, if you have them.
You’ll either walk into the operating room or a staff member will bring you there a stretcher. A member of the operating room team will help you onto the operating bed and place compression boots on your lower legs. These gently inflate and deflate to help blood flow in your legs.
Once you’re comfortable, your anesthesiologist will give you anesthesia through your IV line and you’ll fall asleep. You’ll also get fluids through your IV line during and after your surgery.
During your surgery
If you’re having a sentinel lymph node biopsy, your surgeon will inject a small amount of blue dye underneath your nipple or near the tumor. This dye will travel in your lymphatic fluid to the sentinel node(s), staining them blue. If you had lymphatic mapping, your surgeon will also use a small device that measures radioactivity from the liquid injected during that procedure.
Once they locate the sentinel lymph node(s), your surgeon will make a small incision and remove them. They may send them to the Pathology department to be checked for cancer cells during your surgery. If the pathologist sees cancer cells, your surgeon may remove more lymph nodes. This is called an axillary lymph node dissection. Your surgeon will discuss this with you in more detail, if needed.
Because blue dye was used during your sentinel lymph node biopsy, your skin, urine (pee), and stool (poop) may be bluish-green for 1 to 2 days after your surgery.
Once your surgery is finished, your incision(s) will be closed with sutures (stitches) under your skin. You may also have Steri-Strips™ (thin pieces of surgical tape) or Dermabond® (surgical glue) over your incision(s). Your incision(s) may be covered with a bandage.Back to top
After Your Surgery
The information in this section will tell you what to expect after your surgery, both during your hospital stay and after you leave the hospital. You’ll learn how to safely recover from your surgery.
As you read through this section, write down any questions you want to ask your healthcare provider.
In the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) or recovery room
When you wake up after your surgery, you’ll be in the PACU or your recovery room. A nurse will be keeping track of your body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. You’ll be getting oxygen through a thin tube that rests below your nose.
Tubes and drains
If you had an axillary lymph node dissection, you’ll have a soft catheter (flexible tube) called a Jackson-Pratt (JP) drain inserted near the incision in your armpit. It will drain extra fluid from the area and will still be in place when you’re discharged from the hospital. Your nurse will give you information to help you take care of it at home.
Managing your pain
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your pain often and give you pain medication as needed. You’ll also get pain medication to take at home. Talk with your healthcare provider about possible side effects and when to start switching to over-the-counter pain medication.
Leaving the PACU or your recovery room
Once you’re awake and your pain is under control, you can go home with your responsible care partner. Before you leave, look at your incision(s) with one of your healthcare providers. Knowing what it looks like will help you notice any changes later.
Filling out your Recovery Tracker
We want to know how you’re feeling after you leave the hospital. To help us continue caring for you, we’ll send questions to your MyMSK account every day for 10 days after you leave the hospital. These questions are known as your Recovery Tracker.
Fill out your Recovery Tracker every day before midnight (12:00 am). It only takes 2 to 3 minutes to complete. Your answers to these questions will help us understand how you’re feeling and what you need.
Based on your answers, we may reach out to you for more information or ask you to call your surgeon’s office. You can always contact your surgeon’s office if you have any questions. For more information, read the resource About Your Recovery Tracker .
Caring for your incision(s)
Look at your incision(s) every day. Call your healthcare provider if you see any redness or drainage.
Your incision(s) will be closed with sutures under your skin. These sutures dissolve on their own and don’t need to be removed.
If you go home with Steri-Strips or Dermabond on your incision(s), they’ll usually loosen and fall or peel off on their own. If not, your healthcare provider may remove them when they see you at your follow-up appointment. If they haven’t fallen off after 14 days, you can take them off.
A week or two after your surgery, a pocket of fluid may form under the skin of your armpit or breast where tissue was removed. This is called a seroma, and it’s harmless. The area may feel soft and puffy. It may also feel tender.
Seromas often go away on their own. If you develop a seroma that’s large or feels uncomfortable, call your healthcare provider’s office to discuss with your doctor or nurse.
New sensations (feelings) in your breast
As you’re healing, you may feel a few different sensations in your breast or arm. Tenderness, numbness, and twinges are common examples.
These sensations usually come and go and will lessen over time, usually within the first few months after surgery. However, some may last months, even 5 years or longer. This is because your nerves are the slowest part of your body to heal. Most people tell us the sensations aren’t severe or distressing.
As you continue to heal, you may feel scar tissue along your incision site(s). It will feel hard. This is common and will soften over the next several months.
You can shower 24 hours after your surgery. Taking a warm shower is relaxing and can help decrease discomfort.
When you’re ready to shower, take off your bra and any gauze pads covering your incision(s). If you have Steri-Strips or Dermabond on your incision(s), don’t remove them. Gently wash your incision(s) with soap and water, letting the shower water run over them. Pat the areas dry with a clean towel.
You can leave your incision(s) uncovered, unless you have drainage. If you have drainage, call your healthcare provider. If it feels more comfortable, you can place a clean gauze pad over your incision(s).
Don’t take tub baths, swim, or use hot tubs or saunas until talking with your healthcare provider at your first appointment after surgery. Also, talk with your healthcare provider before using deodorant, lotion, powder, or perfume anywhere near your surgery site.
Managing your pain
People pain or discomfort for different lengths of time.
Follow the guidelines below to help manage your pain at home.
- Take your medications as directed and as needed.
- Call your healthcare provider if the medication prescribed for you doesn’t ease your pain.
- Don’t drive or drink alcohol while you’re taking prescription pain medication. Some prescription pain medications can make you drowsy. Alcohol can make the drowsiness worse.
- As your incision heals, you’ll have less pain and need less pain medication. An over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin®) will ease aches and discomfort.
- Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for stopping your prescription pain medication.
- Don’t take more of any medication than the amount directed on the label or as instructed by your healthcare provider.
- Read the labels on all the medications you’re taking, especially if you’re taking acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is an ingredient in many over-the-counter and prescription medications. Taking too much can harm your liver. Don’t take more than one medication that contains acetaminophen without talking with a member of your care team.
- Pain medication should help you resume your normal activities. Take enough medication to do your activities and exercises comfortably. It’s normal for your pain to increase a little as you start to be more active.
- Keep track of when you take your pain medication. It works best 30 to 45 minutes after you take it. Taking it when you first have pain is better than waiting for the pain to get worse.
Some prescription pain medications (such as opioids) may cause constipation (having fewer bowel movements than usual).
Talk with your healthcare provider about how to prevent and manage constipation. You can also follow the guidelines below.
- Go to the bathroom at the same time every day. Your body will get used to going at that time. If you feel the urge to go, though, don’t put it off.
- Try to use the bathroom 5 to 15 minutes after meals. After breakfast is a good time to go. That’s when the reflexes in your colon are strongest.
- Exercise, if you can. Walking is an excellent form of exercise.
- Drink 8 (8-ounce) glasses (2 liters) of liquids daily, if you can. Choose liquids such as water, juices (such as prune juice), soups, and ice cream shakes. Avoid liquids with caffeine (such as coffee and soda). Caffeine can pull fluid out of your body.
- Slowly increase the fiber in your diet to 25 to 35 grams per day. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cereals contain fiber.
- Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to treat constipation. Check with your healthcare provider before taking any medications for constipation. Follow the instructions on the label or from your healthcare provider. Examples of over-the-counter medications for constipation include:
- Docusate sodium (Colace®). This is a stool softener (medication that makes your bowel movements softer) that causes few side effects. You can use it to help prevent constipation. Don’t take it with mineral oil.
- Polyethylene glycol (MiraLAX®). This is a laxative (medication that causes bowel movements) that causes few side effects. Take it with 8 ounces (1 cup) of a liquid. Only take it if you’re already constipated.
- Senna (Senokot®). This is a stimulant laxative, which can cause cramping. It’s best to take it at bedtime. Only take it if you’re already constipated.
If you haven’t had a bowel movement in 2 days, call your healthcare provider.
Physical activity and exercise
You can start doing most activities again right away, but it’s best to pace yourself as you return to your daily routine. Talk with your healthcare provider before starting strenuous exercise (such as running, jogging, or lifting weights).
Exercises after surgery
The scar tissue that forms around your surgical site can limit the range of motion of your arm and shoulder. Read the resource Exercises After Your Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy or Lumpectomy. It has exercises that you can do to help you regain motion in your arm and shoulder.
If you had an axillary lymph node dissection, your nurse will give you the resource Exercises After Your Axillary Lymph Node Dissection. This resource has additional information on what exercises to do.
You can start driving again as long as you aren’t taking prescription pain medication that may make you drowsy. You should also have full range of motion of your arm and be able to comfortably turn the steering wheel.
Sometimes, removing lymph nodes can make it hard for your lymphatic system to drain properly. If this happens, lymphatic fluid can build up in the area where the lymph nodes were removed. This extra fluid causes swelling called lymphedema.
Lymphedema can develop in the arm, hand, breast, or torso on your affected side (the side where your lymph nodes were removed).
Most people don’t develop lymphedema, but some do. It’s hard to know a person’s risk of developing lymphedema because:
- There’s no standard test for diagnosing lymphedema.
- Removing or injuring lymph nodes affects people differently.
- Lymphedema can develop soon after surgery, or it can develop years later.
- Current cases of lymphedema can be caused by older treatment methods.
Your risk of developing lymphedema depends on how your lymph nodes are removed (see Figure 2).
During a sentinel lymph node biopsy, between 1 and a few lymph nodes are removed from your armpit and checked for cancer cells. The risk of developing lymphedema after a sentinel lymph node biopsy is low. About 0 to 7 out of every 100 people who have a sentinel lymph node biopsy develop lymphedema.
During an axillary lymph node dissection, more than a few lymph nodes are removed from your armpit. This is done to remove additional lymph nodes that may have cancer cells. The risk of developing lymphedema after an axillary lymph node dissection is higher than it is after a sentinel node biopsy. About 15 to 25 out of every 100 people who have an axillary lymph node dissection may develop lymphedema.
There’s no way to know for sure who will develop lymphedema.
Lowering your risk of developing lymphedema
Doing the following things may help lower your risk of developing lymphedema.
- Stay at or safely work towards a healthy body weight.
- Exercise and stretch your muscles regularly. Talk with your surgeon or nurse about which exercises are right for you.
- When you resume exercise and activity, make sure to build up slowly and gradually. If you feel discomfort, stop and take a break. Exercise shouldn’t cause pain.
- Try to minimize your risk of infection to your hand and arm. Ask your healthcare provider how best to care for cuts, scratches, and burns.
If you had a sentinel lymph node biopsy:
- It’s OK to use your affected arm for blood draws, injections (shots), IV lines, and blood pressure measurements. Ask your healthcare providers to try to use your unaffected arm if it’s available.
- If you start to notice any signs of lymphedema, always use your unaffected arm. If this isn’t possible, talk with your healthcare provider about which arm is safest to use.
If you had an axillary lymph node dissection:
- Read the resource Hand and Arm Guidelines After Your Axillary Lymph Node Dissection for information about lowering your lymphedema risk after your procedure.
Signs of lymphedema
Some mild swelling after surgery is normal. The swelling may last for up to 6 weeks. It’s often temporary and will gradually go away. You may also feel pain or other sensations, such as twinges and tingling, after surgery. These feelings are common and aren’t necessarily signs of lymphedema.
If you’re at risk of developing lymphedema, watch for these signs in your affected arm, hand, breast, and torso:
- A feeling of heaviness, aching, or pain
- A tight feeling in your skin
- Less flexibility
- Skin changes, such as tightness or pitting (skin that stays indented after pressing on it)
If you have any signs of lymphedema or aren’t sure, contact your healthcare provider.
You can start sexual activity when you feel ready. It won’t harm your surgical area. Avoid putting pressure on the surgical site in the first weeks after surgery. Try placing a small pillow or towel over the surgical area. If you have any questions, talk to your nurse.
It may be helpful to let your partner see your incision(s) soon after surgery. This may ease any anxiety you both may feel. Your partner might worry that touching your incision(s) will hurt you. Let them know what is and isn’t comfortable.
You may have concerns about the effects of cancer and your treatment on how you look or on your sexuality. Our Female Sexual Medicine and Women’s Health Program is available to help you. For more information or to make an appointment, call 646-888-5076.
Your follow-up appointment will be 1 to 2 weeks after your surgery. Your healthcare provider will talk with you about your pathology results during this appointment.
Addressing your emotional needs
After surgery for a serious illness, you may have new and upsetting feelings. Many people say they felt weepy, sad, worried, nervous, irritable, and angry at one time or another. You may find that you can’t control some of these feelings. If this happens, it’s a good idea to seek emotional support. Your healthcare provider can refer you to MSK’s Counseling Center. You can also reach them by calling 646-888-0200.
The first step in coping is to talk about how you feel. Family and friends can help. Your healthcare providers can reassure, support, and guide you. It’s always a good idea to let us know how you, your family, and your friends are feeling emotionally. Many resources are available to help you and your family. Whether you’re in the hospital or at home, we’re here to help you and your family and friends handle the emotional aspects of your illness.
When to call your healthcare provider
Call your healthcare provider if:
- You have a fever of 100.5 °F (38 °C) or higher.
- You have shortness of breath.
- The skin around your incision is warmer than usual.
- You have more discomfort in the area.
- The area around your incision is getting redder.
- The area around your incision is starting to swell.
- Swelling around your incision is getting worse.
- There’s discharge coming from your incision.
Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, call your healthcare provider’s office.
After 5:00 pm, during the weekend, and on holidays, call 212-639-2000 and ask to speak to the person on call for your healthcare provider.Back to top
This section has a list of support services that may help you get ready for your surgery and recover safely.
As you read through this section, write down any questions you want to ask your healthcare provider.
MSK support services
Call if you have questions about your hospital admission, including requesting a private room.
Call if you have questions about anesthesia.
Blood Donor Room
Call for information if you’re interested in donating blood or platelets.
Bobst International Center
MSK welcomes patients from around the world. If you’re an international patient, call for help arranging your care.
Many people find that counseling helps them. We provide counseling for individuals, couples, families, and groups, as well as medications to help if you feel anxious or depressed. To make an appointment, ask your healthcare provider for a referral or call the number above.
Female Sexual Medicine and Women’s Health Program
Cancer and cancer treatments can have an impact on your sexual health. Our Female Sexual Medicine and Women’s Health Program can help if you’re dealing with cancer-related sexual health challenges such as premature menopause or fertility issues. Call for more information or to make an appointment. We can help you take action and address sexual health issues before, during, or after your treatment.
Food Pantry Program
The food pantry program provides food to people in need during their cancer treatment. For more information, talk with your healthcare provider or call the number above.
Integrative Medicine Service
Integrative Medicine Service offers many services to complement (go along with) traditional medical care, including music therapy, mind/body therapies, dance and movement therapy, yoga, and touch therapy.
Male Sexual and Reproductive Medicine Program
Cancer and cancer treatments can have an impact on your sexual health. Our Male Sexual and Reproductive Medicine Program can help if you’re dealing with cancer-related sexual health challenges such as erectile dysfunction (ED). Call for information or to make an appointment. We can help you take action and address sexual health issues before, during, or after your treatment.
You can visit our library website or speak with the library reference staff to find more information about your specific cancer type. You can also visit LibGuides on MSK’s library website at libguides.mskcc.org
Patient and Caregiver Education
Visit the Patient and Caregiver Education website to search our virtual library. There you can find written educational resources, videos, and online programs.
Patient and Caregiver Peer Support Program
You may find it comforting to speak with someone who has been through a treatment like yours. You can talk with a former MSK patient or caregiver through our Patient and Caregiver Peer Support Program. These conversations are confidential. They may take place in person or over the phone.
Call if you have questions about preauthorization with your insurance company. This is also called preapproval.
Patient Representative Office
Call if you have questions about the Health Care Proxy form or if you have concerns about your care.
Perioperative Nurse Liaison
Call if you have questions about MSK releasing any information while you’re having surgery.
Private Duty Nursing Office
You may request private nurses or companions. Call for more information.
Resources for Life After Cancer (RLAC) Program
At MSK, care doesn’t end after active treatment. The RLAC Program is for patients and their families who have finished treatment. This program has many services, including seminars, workshops, support groups, counseling on life after treatment, and help with insurance and employment issues.
Social workers help patients, family, and friends deal with issues that are common for cancer patients. They provide individual counseling and support groups throughout the course of treatment and can help you communicate with children and other family members. Our social workers can also help refer you to community agencies and programs, as well as financial resources if you’re eligible.
Our chaplains (spiritual counselors) are available to listen, help support family members, pray, contact community clergy or faith groups, or simply be a comforting companion and a spiritual presence. Anyone can request spiritual support, regardless of formal religious affiliation. MSK’s interfaith chapel is located near Memorial Hospital’s main lobby. It’s open 24 hours a day. If you have an emergency, call 212-639-2000. Ask for the chaplain on call.
Tobacco Treatment Program
If you want to quit smoking, MSK has specialists who can help. Call for information.
MSK’s Virtual Programs offer online education and support for patients and caregivers, even when you can’t come to MSK in person. Through live, interactive sessions, you can learn about your diagnosis, what to expect during treatment, and how to prepare for the various stages of your cancer care. Sessions are confidential, free, and led by expert clinical staff. If you’re interested in joining a Virtual Program, visit our website at www.mskcc.org/vp for more information.
External support services
In New York City, the MTA offers a shared ride, door-to-door service for people with disabilities who can’t take the public bus or subway.
American Cancer Society (ACS)
Offers a variety of information and services, including Hope Lodge, a free place for patients and caregivers to stay during cancer treatment.
Cancer and Careers
A resource for education, tools, and events for employees with cancer.
275 Seventh Avenue (Between West 25th & 26th Streets)
New York, NY 10001
Provides counseling, support groups, educational workshops, publications, and financial assistance.
Cancer Support Community
Provides support and education to people affected by cancer.
A place where men, women, and children living with cancer find social and emotional support through networking, workshops, lectures, and social activities.
Offers financial assistance to pay for copayments during treatment. Patients must have medical insurance, meet the income criteria, and be prescribed medication that’s part of the Good Days formulary.
LGBT Cancer Project
Provides support and advocacy for the LGBT community, including online support groups and a database of LGBT-friendly clinical trials.
Provides reproductive information and support to cancer patients and survivors whose medical treatments have risks associated with infertility.
Look Good Feel Better Program
This program offers workshops to learn things you can do to help you feel better about your appearance. For more information or to sign up for a workshop, call the number above or visit the program’s website.
National Cancer Legal Services Network
Free cancer legal advocacy program.
National LGBT Cancer Network
Provides education, training, and advocacy for LGBT cancer survivors and those at risk.
Lists Patient Assistance Programs for brand and generic name medications.
Provides prescription benefits to eligible employees and retirees of public sector employers in New York State.
Patient Advocate Foundation
Provides access to care, financial assistance, insurance assistance, job retention assistance, and access to the national underinsured resource directory.
This section has the educational resources mentioned in this guide. These resources will help you get ready for your surgery and recover safely after surgery.
As you read through these resources, write down any questions you want to ask your healthcare provider.
- A Guide for Caregivers
- About Your Recovery Tracker
- Advance Care Planning
- Common Medications Containing Aspirin, Other Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), or Vitamin E
- Exercises After Your Axillary Lymph Node Dissection
- Exercises After Your Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy or Lumpectomy
- Fertility Preservation: Options for Females Starting Cancer Treatment
- Hand and Arm Guidelines After Your Axillary Lymph Node Dissection
- Herbal Remedies and Cancer Treatment
- How to Be a Health Care Agent
- How to Enroll in MyMSK: Memorial Sloan Kettering's Patient Portal
For more information about lymphedema, you can also read the New York State Department of Health’s resource Understanding Lymphedema.Back to top