About Your Mastectomy

This guide will help you get ready for your mastectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK). It will also help you understand what to expect during your recovery.

Read through this guide at least once before your surgery and use it as a reference in the days leading up to your surgery.

Bring this guide with you every time you come to MSK, including the day of your surgery. You and your healthcare team will refer to it throughout your care.

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About Your Surgery

This guide contains information about several types of breast surgeries. The surgery you’re having may be called a:

  • Total mastectomy
  • Total mastectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy
  • Total mastectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy with a possible axillary lymph node dissection
  • Total mastectomy and axillary node dissection (also called a modified radical mastectomy)

If you’re having breast reconstruction, you will get more information from your plastic surgeon.

Total mastectomy is removal of all your breast tissue. The surgery is usually done through an incision (surgical cut) across the chest, but it can be done using different methods. Your breast surgeon will talk with you about which option is right for you.

The lymph nodes in your armpit may be removed and tested during your surgery to see if the cancer has spread. In most cases, lymph nodes are tested by performing a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

Sentinel lymph node biopsy is the removal of the first lymph node(s) in your armpit that receives drainage from the breast tumor. This means that cancer cells may spread to it. Your doctor can identify the node by injecting a special dye into your breast and seeing which lymph nodes contain the dye. More information about this procedure is included later in this guide.

After the sentinel lymph node(s) is removed, it may be tested by the pathologist during your surgery. If any cancer cells are found in the sentinel node(s), your doctor may then do an axillary lymph node dissection.

Axillary lymph node dissection is the removal of most or all of the nodes found in the armpit. The number of nodes removed varies from person to person.

About Your Lymphatic System

Understanding how your lymphatic system works can be helpful as you get ready for and recover from your breast surgery. Your lymphatic system has 2 functions:

  • 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 through your lymphatic system. It carries cells that help fight infections and other diseases.
Figure 1. Your lymphatic system in your chest

Figure 1. Your lymphatic system in your chest

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Before Your Surgery

The information in this section will help you get ready for your surgery. Read through 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.

Write down your questions and be sure to ask your doctor or nurse.

Getting Ready for Your Surgery

You and your healthcare 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. Some examples are aspirin, heparin, warfarin (Coumadin®), clopidogrel (Plavix®), enoxaparin (Lovenox®), dabigatran (Pradaxa®), apixaban (Eliquis®), and rivaroxaban (Xarelto®). There are others, so be sure your healthcare provider knows all the medications you’re taking.
  • I take prescription medications (medications prescribed by a healthcare provider), 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 (shortness of breath while sleeping).
  • I have had a problem with anesthesia (medication to make you sleep during surgery) in the past.
  • I am allergic to certain medication(s) or materials, including latex.
  • I am not willing to receive a blood transfusion.
  • I drink alcohol.
  • I smoke.
  • I use recreational drugs.

Preventing Pregnancy

If there’s any chance that you could become pregnant before your surgery, be sure to use a form of birth control that doesn’t have hormones. For example, you may use a male condom, a diaphragm, or a Copper T intrauterine device (IUD). If you have any questions about birth control or need help deciding the type of contraception (birth control) that’s right for you, talk with your gynecologist (GYN doctor).

Fertility Preservation

Avoid becoming pregnant during your 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 Women Who Are 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.

About Smoking

If you smoke, you can have breathing problems when you have surgery. Stopping even for a few days before surgery can help. If you smoke, your nurse will refer you to our Tobacco Treatment Program. 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.

Within 30 Days of Your Surgery

Presurgical Testing (PST)

Before your surgery, you will have an appointment for presurgical testing (PST). The date, time, and location of your PST appointment will be printed on the appointment reminder from your surgeon’s office.

You can eat and take your usual medications the day of your PST appointment.

During your appointment, you will meet with a nurse practitioner (NP) who works closely with anesthesiology staff (doctors and specialized nurses 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.

Tell your NP if you’re breastfeeding or pumping your breast milk for your child.

Your NP will talk with you about which medications you should take the morning of your surgery.

It is very 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 doctor(s).

Identify Your Caregiver

Your caregiver plays an important role in your care. You and your caregiver will learn about your surgery from your healthcare provider. After your surgery, your caregiver should be with you when you’re given your discharge instructions so they’re able to help you care for yourself at home. Your caregiver will also need to take you home after you’re discharged from the hospital.

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 have completed one already, or if you 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. Make sure to plan this before the day of your surgery.

If you don’t have someone to take you home, call one of the agencies below. They will send someone to go home with you. There’s usually a charge for this service, and you will need to provide transportation.

Agencies in New York                                         Agencies in New Jersey
Partners in Care: 888-735-8913                                         Caring People: 877-227-4649
Caring People: 877-227-4649                                          

10 Days Before Your Surgery

Stop Taking Vitamin E

If you take vitamin E, stop taking it 10 days before your surgery. Vitamin E can cause bleeding. For more information, read the resource Common Medications Containing Aspirin, Other Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), or Vitamin E.

Buy Hibiclens® Skin Cleanser

Hibiclens skin cleanser

Hibiclens skin cleanser

Hibiclens is a skin cleanser that kills germs for 24 hours after you use it (see figure). Showering with Hibiclens before your surgery will help lower your risk of infection after surgery. You can buy Hibiclens before leaving the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center or at your local pharmacy without a prescription.

7 Days Before Your Surgery

Stop Taking Herbal Remedies and Other Dietary Supplements

Stop taking herbal remedies and other dietary supplements 7 days before your surgery. If you take a multivitamin, ask your doctor or nurse if you should keep taking it. For more information, read the resource Herbal Remedies and Cancer Treatment.

2 Days Before Your Surgery

Stop Taking Certain Medications

If you take aspirin, ask your doctor if you should keep taking it. Aspirin and medications that contain aspirin 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 will call you on the Friday before. If you don’t get a call by 7:00 pm, please call 212-639-5014.

The staff member will tell you what time to arrive at the hospital for your surgery.

Lymphatic Mapping with Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy

If you’re having a sentinel lymph node biopsy, you may have lymphatic mapping as part of your surgery. The mapping will be done the day before your surgery or the morning of your surgery.

Lymphatic Mapping

During your procedure, you will lie on a reclining chair for about 20 minutes. While you’re in the reclining chair, a doctor or nurse will inject a small amount of a radioactive liquid under your skin below the areola of your affected breast. You might feel stinging or burning during the injection.

After the injection, you will massage the area of the injection site for 10 minutes. This will help the radioactive liquid travel to the sentinel node(s). Then, a technologist will measure the radioactivity in your breast and axilla (armpit), on your affected side to see how much of the liquid was absorbed. There are 2 ways they can do this.

  • Your radiation technologist might use a small handheld device called a neoprobe.
  • You might have an imaging scan done using a larger machine that you lie down on. Read the section “Nuclear Medicine Scan” for more information.

Both ways work equally well. Your doctor or nurse will tell you what to expect.

Nuclear Medicine Scan

If you need an imaging scan after your injection, your technologist will take you to the scanning room. You will lie on a table while the technologist takes pictures. The pictures will show the flow of the radioactive liquid through your body and which of your lymph nodes absorbed it. Each picture takes 5 minutes to complete, 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. They will also show which lymph nodes absorb the liquid. This creates a “map” of your lymphatic system. Your surgeon will use this map to find the location of your sentinel node(s).

If you’re having surgery the same day as your mapping, you’ll be taken from the scanning room to the operating room. If you’re having surgery at the Josie Robertson Surgical Center (JRSC), your care team will arrange for you to take an MSK van to the JRSC after your procedure. In most other cases, you’ll go home after the mapping.

Sentinel Node Biopsy

Your sentinel lymph node biopsy will take place during surgery. During this procedure, your surgeon will inject a small amount of blue dye underneath your nipple or near the site of the cancer. This dye will travel in your lymphatic fluid to the sentinel node(s) and will turn them blue. If you had a lymphatic mapping procedure, your surgeon will also use a small device that measures radioactivity from the liquid that was injected during that procedure.

Once the sentinel node(s) are located, your surgeon will make a small incision. The sentinel nodes will be blue from the blue dye, which will let your surgeon see them. The surgeon will remove the sentinel node(s) and then the Pathology department will examine them to see if they contain cancer cells. If they do contain cancer cells, you may need to have more lymph nodes removed. 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 procedure, your skin, urine (pee), and stool (poop) may be a bluish-green color for 1 to 2 days after your procedure.

Shower With Hibiclens

The night before your surgery, shower using Hibiclens.

  1. Use your normal shampoo to wash your hair. Rinse your head well.
  2. Use your normal soap to wash your face and genital area. Rinse your body well with warm water.
  3. Open the Hibiclens bottle. Pour some solution into your hand or a clean washcloth.
  4. Move away from the shower stream to avoid rinsing off the Hibiclens too soon.
  5. Rub the Hibiclens gently over your body from your neck to your feet. Don’t put the Hibiclens on your face or genital area.
  6. Move back into the shower stream to rinse off the Hibiclens. Use warm water.
  7. Dry yourself off with a clean towel after your shower.
  8. Don’t put on any lotion, cream, deodorant, makeup, powder, perfume, or cologne after your shower.

Sleep

Go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep.

Instructions for eating and drinking before your surgery

12 ounces of water
  • Do not eat anything after midnight the night before your surgery. This includes hard candy and gum.
  • Between midnight and up until 2 hours before your scheduled arrival time, you may drink a total of 12 ounces of water (see figure).
  • Starting 2 hours before your scheduled arrival time, do not eat or drink anything. This includes water.

The Morning of Your Surgery

Take Your Medications

If your doctor or NP 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 and the surgery you’re having, this may be all, some, or none of your usual morning medications.

Shower With Hibiclens

Shower using Hibiclens just before you leave for the hospital. Use the Hibiclens 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 equipment used during your surgery can cause burns if it touches metal.
  • Don’t put on any lotion, cream, deodorant, makeup, powder, perfume, or cologne.
  • Leave valuable items (such as credit cards, jewelry, and your checkbook) 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.
  • Before you’re taken into the operating room, you will need to remove your hearing aids, dentures, prosthetic device(s), wig, and religious articles.

What to Bring

  • A button-down or loose-fitting top.
  • Your breathing machine for sleep apnea (such as your CPAP machine), if you have one.
  • Your Health Care Proxy form and other advance directives, if you have 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 this guide to teach you how to care for yourself after your surgery.

Once You Arrive for Your Surgery

You will be asked to state and spell your name and date of birth many times. This is for your safety. People with the same or a similar name may be having surgery on the same day.

Get Dressed for Surgery

When it is time to change for surgery, you will get a hospital gown, robe, and nonskid socks to wear.

Meet With Your Nurse

You will meet with your nurse before surgery. Tell your nurse the dose of any medications (including patches and creams) you took after midnight and the time you took them.

Your nurse may place an intravenous (IV) line into one of your veins, usually in your arm or hand. If your nurse doesn’t place the IV, your anesthesiologist will do it later once you’re in the operating room.

Meet With Your Anesthesiologist

Your anesthesiologist 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 will have.
  • Answer your questions about your anesthesia.
Marking Your Surgical Site

In addition to being asked your name and birth date, you may also be asked 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 mark the site on your body that will be operated on. This is for your safety. This helps make sure all members of your surgical team know the plan for your surgery.

Get Ready For Your Surgery

Once your nurse has seen you, 1 or 2 visitors can keep you company as you wait for your surgery to start. When it’s time for your surgery, your visitor(s) will be taken to the waiting area.

You will either walk into the operating room or be taken in on a stretcher. A member of the operating room team will help you onto the operating bed. Compression boots will be placed 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 will fall asleep. You will also get fluids through your IV line during and after your surgery.

During Your Surgery

After you’re fully asleep, a breathing tube will be placed through your mouth and into your windpipe to help you breathe.

Once your surgery is finished, your incision 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 incisions. Your incisions may be covered with a bandage.

Your breathing tube is usually taken out while you’re still in the operating room.

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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 will learn how to safely recover from your surgery.

Write down your questions and be sure to ask your doctor or nurse.

In the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) or Recovery Room

Figure 2. JP drain

Figure 2. JP drain

When you wake up after your surgery, you will be in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) or your recovery room.

A nurse will be monitoring your body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. You may be getting oxygen through a thin tube that rests below your nose or a mask that covers your nose and mouth. You will also have compression boots on your lower legs.

Tubes and Drains

You will have a surgical bra around your chest to cover your surgical site and at least 1 Jackson-Pratt® (JP) drain (see Figure 2) attached to the bra. The JP drain will help drain the fluid from your incision and prevent swelling. You will get supplies and an extra surgical bra to take home to help care your incision(s) and drain(s).

Visitors

Your visitors can see you briefly in the PACU, usually within 90 minutes after you arrive there. A member of the nursing staff will explain the guidelines to them. Your healthcare provider will let you know how long you will need to stay in the PACU.

Managing Your Pain

You will have some pain after your surgery. To help you manage this:

  • You will get pain medication in your IV line.
  • Once you’re able to eat normal food, you will get oral pain medication (medication you swallow).

Your doctor and nurse will ask you about your pain often and give you medication as needed. If your pain isn’t relieved, tell your doctor or nurse. It’s important to control your pain so you can use your incentive spirometer and move around. Controlling your pain will help you recover better.

You will be given pain medication before you leave the hospital. Talk with your doctor or nurse about possible side effects and when you should start switching to over-the-counter pain medications.

Moving Around and Walking

Moving around and walking will help lower your risk for blood clots and pneumonia (lung infection). It will also help stimulate your bowels so you start passing gas and having bowel movements (pooping) again. Your nurse, physical therapist, or occupational therapist will help you move around.

Exercising Your Lungs

It’s important to exercise your lungs so they expand fully. This helps prevent pneumonia.

  • Use your incentive spirometer 10 times every hour you’re awake. For more information, read the resource How to Use Your Incentive Spirometer.
  • Do coughing and deep breathing exercises. A member of your care team will teach you how to do these exercises.

Eating and Drinking

First, you can drink water or juice, then you can start eating solid foods, such as crackers. Then you can start eating your normal foods again, as tolerated.

If you have questions about your diet, ask to see a clinical dietitian nutritionist.

Learning to Care for Your Tubes and Drains

You will go home with at least 1 JP drain in place. The drain(s) will usually be removed about 1 to 2 weeks after your surgery but may be left in longer. Your nurse will teach you how to care for the drain before you leave the hospital. For more information, read Caring for Your Jackson-Pratt Drain.

It’s helpful if your caregiver also learns how to care for your JP drain(s). This will make it easier for them to help you care for yourself at home.

Planning for Your Discharge

Your first appointment after surgery will usually be within 1 to 2 weeks after you leave the hospital. Your nurse will give you instructions on how to make this appointment, including the phone number to call.

Leaving the Hospital

Before you leave the hospital, look at your incision with your nurse and caregiver. Knowing what your incision looks like will help you notice any changes later.

On the day of your discharge, you should plan to leave the hospital between 8:00 am and 11:00 am. You will need a responsible care partner to take you home once you’re discharged.

Before you leave, your doctor will write your discharge orders and make sure you have all the prescriptions you need. You will also get written discharge instructions. Your nurse will review these instructions with you before you leave.

At Home

Read the resource What You Can Do to Avoid Falling to learn about what you can do to stay safe and keep from falling at home and during your appointments at MSK.

Managing Your Pain

People have pain or discomfort for different lengths of time. You may still have some pain when you go home and you will have pain medication available for this if needed. Some people have soreness, tightness, or muscle aches around their incision for 6 months or longer. This doesn’t mean that something is wrong.

Follow the guidelines below to help manage your pain at home.

  • Take your medications as directed and as needed.
  • Call your doctor if the medication prescribed for you doesn’t ease your pain.
  • Don’t drive or drink alcohol while you’re taking prescription pain medication.
  • As your incision heals, you will have less pain and need less pain medication. An over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®) will ease aches and discomfort.
    • Follow your doctor or nurse’s instructions for stopping your prescription pain medication.
    • Don’t take more acetaminophen than the amount directed on the bottle or as instructed by your doctor or nurse. Taking too much acetaminophen can harm your liver.
  • Pain medication should help you resume your normal activities. Take enough medication to do your exercises comfortably. However, 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 your pain first begins is better than waiting for the pain to get worse.

Pain medication may cause constipation (having fewer bowel movements than what’s normal for you).

Managing Constipation

Talk with your nurse about how to 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. But, if you feel like you need to go, don’t put it off.
  • Try to use the bathroom 5 to 15 minutes after meals. After breakfast is a good time to move your bowels. The reflexes in your colon are strongest at this time.
  • Exercise, if you can. Walking is an excellent form of exercise.
  • Drink 8 to 10 (8-ounce) glasses (2 liters) of liquids daily, if you can. Drink water, juices (such as prune juice), soups, ice cream shakes, and other drinks that don’t have caffeine. Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee and soda, pull fluid out of your body.
  • Slowly increase the fiber in your diet to 25 to 35 grams per day. If you have an ostomy or have had recent bowel surgery, check with your doctor or nurse before making any changes in your diet. Foods high in fiber include:
    • Bran
    • Whole-grain cereals and breads
    • Unpeeled fruits and vegetables
    • Mixed green salads
    • Apricots, figs, and raisins
  • Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to treat constipation. Try one of the following over-the-counter medications first.
    • Docusate sodium (Colace®): This is a stool softener (medication that makes your bowel movements softer) that causes few side effects. 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.
    • Senna (Senokot®): This is a stimulant laxative, which can cause cramping. It’s best to take it at bedtime.
    Follow the instructions on the label or from your healthcare provider.

For more information, read the resource Constipation.

The Healing Process and New Sensations

As you’re healing from your surgery, you may feel many different sensations in your arm, chest, or chest wall. You may feel sensations such as tenderness, numbness, twinges, or all 3. You may also feel the sensation of liquid going down your arm, when there’s no actual liquid. This can happen because your nerves were cut during surgery.

After your mastectomy, you may also feel like your breast or nipple is still present. This is called a phantom sensation.

These sensations usually come and go and often get better within the first few months after surgery. Some sensations may last months, or even 5 years or longer. This is because the nerves are the slowest part of your body to heal. Most people say that the sensations aren’t severe or distressing.

Because of the change in sensation, don’t place anything hot or cold directly on your surgical site (such as hot water bottles, heating pads, or ice packs).

As you continue to heal, you may feel scar tissue along your incision site(s). It will feel hard. This is common, and it will soften over the next few months.

Caring for Your Incision

Your incision(s) will be closed with sutures (stitches) under your skin. These sutures dissolve on their own, so they don’t need to be removed. If you have small pieces of surgical tape (Steri-Strips) over your incision(s), your surgeon or nurse will remove them at your follow-up appointment. If you have surgical glue (Dermabond) over your incision, it will dissolve on its own over time.

Follow your doctor’s instructions on how often to clean your incisions.

Call your doctor’s office if:

  • The skin around your incision is very red.
  • The skin around your incision is getting more red.
  • You see drainage that looks like pus (thick and milky).

Eating and Drinking

You can eat all the foods you did before your surgery, unless your doctor gives you other instructions. Eating a balanced diet will help you heal after surgery. Try to eat a good protein source (such as meat, fish, or eggs) at each meal. You should also try to eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

It’s also important to drink plenty of liquids. Choose liquids without alcohol or caffeine. Try to drink 8 to 10 (8-ounce) glasses of liquids every day.

If you have questions about your diet, ask to see a clinical dietitian nutritionist.

Showering

If you’ve had breast reconstruction, talk with your plastic surgeon about when you can shower and if there are any special instructions.

If you haven’t had reconstruction, you can shower 24 hours after your surgery. Before you go home, your nurse will teach you how to secure your drains while showering.

When you’re ready to shower, remove your surgical bra and any gauze pads that are covering the incision(s). If you have Steri-Strips on your incision, don’t remove them. Gently wash your incision(s) with soap and water, letting the shower water run over them. After showering, pat your incisions dry with a clean towel. Put your surgical bra back on and secure the drains to your bra. If it feels more comfortable, you can place a clean gauze pad over your incision under the bra.

Avoid baths, hot tubs, saunas, and swimming pools until your doctor or nurse tell you it’s okay. Also, talk with your doctor or nurse before you use deodorant, lotion, powder, or perfume anywhere near your surgery site.

Wearing a Bra

If you got a surgical bra, continue wearing it until your drains have been removed, then talk with your doctor or nurse about what to wear. Your surgical bra will provide support, help keep you comfortable, and hold your drains in place. You should wear your surgical bra while you sleep but take it off it before you shower.

While you’re healing from your surgery or going through the different stages of breast reconstruction, your bra can be padded to help balance your appearance. One way to fill the bra is to use a soft breast form (temporary breast prosthesis). This breast form is a lightweight nylon pouch. You can adjust the size of the pouch to match your opposite breast by adding or taking out the cotton fluff inside. You can wash the nylon pouch using a mild soap such as Woolite® or Ivory®, then let it air-dry.

You can get the breast form from the Breast Boutique at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center. The Breast Boutique is located at 300 East 66th Street, at 2nd Avenue. To reach the boutique, call 646-888-5330.

You can also line your bra with soft gauze, which you can get from your nurse. Replace the gauze often to make sure it’s always clean.

Breast Prosthesis

A breast prosthesis is a more permanent breast form than the soft nylon pouch. If you’re interested in wearing a breast prosthesis, talk with your doctor or nurse. If you haven’t had breast reconstruction, you can usually start wearing the prosthesis about 4 to 6 weeks after your surgery.

Your doctor can give you a prescription for a breast prosthesis during your follow-up appointment. Check with your insurance company to find out what’s covered for your breast prosthesis.

There are many types of breast prostheses. Mastectomy boutiques and lingerie stores sell them, and the boutique at the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center also carries a full range. A fitter will help you find the best prosthesis for you. If you prefer to shop closer to home, contact the Reach to Recovery program at the American Cancer Society by calling 800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345) to get a list of stores in your area.

Physical Activity and Exercise

If you have had reconstruction, don’t lift objects heavier than 5 pounds (2.27 kilograms) until your doctor says it’s safe. This is usually about 6 weeks for people who had surgery with tissue transfers and 4 to 6 weeks for people who had surgery with tissue expanders. Your doctor will tell you how long you should avoid heavy lifting.

Avoid strenuous activities (such as jogging and tennis) until your doctor tells you it’s safe. Your physical therapist will give you written instructions on what exercises and movements you can do while your incisions are healing. Talk with your doctor or nurse before starting any heavy exercises, such as running, jogging, or lifting weights.

The scar tissue that forms around your surgical site can limit the range of motion of your arm and shoulder. If you have had reconstruction, you may also have muscle pain or tightness.

Review the information in Exercises After Breast Surgery for examples of exercises that will help you regain motion in your arm and shoulder. If you’re having discomfort, you may find it helpful to take some pain medication 30 minutes before starting the exercises.

Sexual Activity

You can start sexual activity again when you feel ready. Having sexual intercourse won’t harm your surgical area.

It may be helpful to let your partner see your incision soon after surgery. This may ease any worries you both might have. Let your partner know what is and isn’t comfortable. 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 with your nurse.

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.

If there’s any chance you can become pregnant, be sure to use birth control. Do not use any form of hormonal birth control. Your birth control options are:

  • Male condoms
  • Diaphragm
  • Copper T IUD. If you’re interested in this method, talk with your gynecologist. This type of IUD can be kept in place for a long as 10 years or can be removed earlier.

Continue to use birth control during your treatment and until your doctor tells you it’s safe to try to get pregnant. For more information, read the resource Sexual Activity During Cancer Treatment: Information for Women.

Going Back to Work

Talk with your doctor or nurse about your job and when it may be safe for you to start working again. If your job involves lots of movement or heavy lifting, you may need to stay out a little longer than if you sit at a desk.

Driving

Don’t drive while you’re taking prescription pain medication. These medications can make you drowsy, making it unsafe for you to drive. Also, don’t drive until:

  • Your drain(s) have been removed.
  • You have recovered your full range of motion.
  • You can comfortably turn the steering wheel.

If you have questions about when it’s safe for you to drive, talk with your healthcare provider.

About Lymphedema

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 your lymph nodes were removed. This extra fluid causes swelling called lymphedema.

Lymphedema can happen in your arm, hand, breast, or torso on your affected side (the side where your lymph nodes were removed).

Most people won’t develop lymphedema, but some will. It’s hard to know someone’s risk of developing lymphedema because:

  • There isn’t a standard test for diagnosing lymphedema.
  • The removal of lymph nodes can affect everyone differently.
  • Lymphedema can develop soon after you have surgery, or it can develop many years later.

Studies show the risk of developing lymphedema varies based on how the lymph nodes are removed. There are 2 types of surgeries used to remove lymph nodes:

  • If you had a sentinel lymph node biopsy, the risk of developing lymphedema is low.
  • If you had an axillary lymph node dissection, studies show the risk of developing lymphedema is higher than with a sentinel node biopsy.

Signs of Lymphedema

Some mild swelling after surgery is normal. The swelling may last for up to 6 weeks, but it shouldn’t last forever and will slowly go away. You may also feel pain or other sensations, such as twinges and tingling, after surgery. These feelings are common and likely aren’t signs of lymphedema.

If you’re at risk of developing lymphedema, watch for these signs:

  • A feeling of heaviness or aching in your chest, arm, hand, or fingers.
  • A tight feeling in the skin of your arm, hand, or chest.
  • Less flexibility in your arm, hand, or fingers.
  • Swelling or changes in your skin, such as tightness or pitting (skin that stays indented after being pressed).

If you have any signs of lymphedema, or you’re not sure, talk with your doctor or nurse.

Lowering Your Lymphedema Risk

There’s no way to know who will develop lymphedema, but there are things you can do to lower your risk of getting it:

  • Maintain or safely work towards a healthy body weight.
  • Exercise and stretch your muscles regularly. When you start exercising and being physically active again, start out slowly, then build up to doing more. If you feel discomfort, stop and take a break. Talk with your healthcare team about which exercises are right for you.
  • If you get a cut or scratch on your affected arm or hand, clean the area with soap and water and put an antibacterial ointment on it such as Bacitracin® or Neosporin®. Cover the area with a bandage.
  • If you get a mild burn on your affected arm or hand, apply a cold pack or cold water on the area for 15 minutes, clean the area with soap and water, and cover it with a bandage.

If you notice any signs of infection such as increased redness, pain, swelling, or heat, call you doctor or nurse. If you had an axillary dissection, you will get more information in the resource Hand and Arm Guidelines After Your Axillary Lymph Node Dissection.

If you’re worried about developing lymphedema, talk with your healthcare provider.

Managing Your Feelings

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.

The first step in coping is to talk about how you feel. Family and friends can help. Your nurse, doctor, and social worker can reassure, support, and guide you. It’s always a good idea to let these professionals know how you, your family, and your friends are feeling emotionally. Many resources are available to you and your family. Whether you’re in the hospital or at home, the nurses, doctors, and social workers are here to help you and your family and friends handle the emotional aspects of your illness.

Using MyMSK

MyMSK (my.mskcc.org) is your MSK patient portal account. You can use MyMSK to send and receive messages from your healthcare team, view your test results, see your appointment dates and times, and more.

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 mymsk@mskcc.org or calling 800-248-0593.

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When to Contact Your Doctor or Nurse

Call your doctor or nurse if you have:

  • A fever of 101 °F (38.3 °C) or higher
  • Drainage from your incision(s)
  • Trouble breathing
  • Warmer than normal skin around your incision(s)
  • Increased discomfort in the area around your incision
  • Increased redness around your incision(s)
  • New or increased swelling around your incision(s)
  • Any questions or concerns

Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, contact your doctor’s office.

After 5:00 pm, during the weekend, and on holidays, call 212-639-2000 and ask to speak to the doctor on call for your doctor.

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Support Services

This section contains a list of support services that may help you get ready for your surgery and recover safely.

Write down your questions and be sure to ask your doctor or nurse.

MSK Support Services

Admitting Office
212-639-7606
Call if you have questions about your hospital admission, including requesting a private room.

Anesthesia
212-639-6840
Call if you have questions about anesthesia.

Blood Donor Room
212-639-7643
Call for more information if you’re interested in donating blood or platelets.

Bobst International Center
888-675-7722
MSK welcomes patients from around the world. If you’re an international patient, call for help arranging your care.

Chaplaincy Service
212-639-5982
At MSK, our chaplains 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. The interfaith chapel is located near the main lobby of Memorial Hospital and is open 24 hours a day. If you have an emergency, please call the hospital operator and ask for the chaplain on call.

Counseling Center
646-888-0200
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.

Food Pantry Program
646-888-8055
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
646-888-0800
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.

MSK Library
library.mskcc.org
212-639-7439
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
www.mskcc.org/pe
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
212-639-5007
You may find it comforting to speak with someone who has been through a treatment similar to 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.

Patient Billing
646-227-3378
Call if you have questions about preauthorization with your insurance company. This is also called preapproval.

Patient Representative Office
212-639-7202
Call if you have questions about the Health Care Proxy form or if you have concerns about your care.

Perioperative Nurse Liaison
212-639-5935
Call if you have questions about MSK releasing any information while you’re having surgery.

Private Duty Nursing Office
212-639-6892
You may request private nurses or companions. Call for more information.

Resources for Life After Cancer (RLAC) Program
646-888-8106
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.

Sexual Health Programs
Cancer and cancer treatments can have an impact on your sexual health. MSK’s Sexual Health Programs can help you take action and address sexual health issues before, during, or after your treatment.

  • Our Female Sexual Medicine and Women’s Health Program helps women who are dealing with cancer-related sexual health challenges, including premature menopause and fertility issues. For more information, or to make an appointment, call 646-888-5076.
  • Our Male Sexual and Reproductive Medicine Program helps men who are dealing with cancer-related sexual health challenges, including erectile dysfunction. For more information, or to make an appointment, call 646-888-6024.

Social Work
212-639-7020
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.

Tobacco Treatment Program
212-610-0507
If you want to quit smoking, MSK has specialists who can help. Call for more information.

Virtual Programs
www.mskcc.org/vp
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.

For more online information, visit the Cancer Types section of www.mskcc.org.

External Support Services

General Support Services

Access-A-Ride
web.mta.info/nyct/paratran/guide.htm
877-337-2017
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.

Air Charity Network
www.aircharitynetwork.org
877-621-7177
Provides travel to treatment centers.

American Cancer Society (ACS)
www.cancer.org
800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345)
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
www.cancerandcareers.org
A resource for education, tools, and events for employees with cancer.

CancerCare
www.cancercare.org
800-813-4673
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
www.cancersupportcommunity.org
Provides support and education to people affected by cancer.

Caregiver Action Network
www.caregiveraction.org
800-896-3650
Provides education and support for people who care for loved ones with a chronic illness or disability.

Corporate Angel Network
www.corpangelnetwork.org
866-328-1313
Offers free travel to treatment across the country using empty seats on corporate jets.

Gilda’s Club
www.gildasclubnyc.org
212-647-9700
A place where men, women, and children living with cancer find social and emotional support through networking, workshops, lectures, and social activities.

Good Days
www.mygooddays.org
877-968-7233
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.

Healthwell Foundation
www.healthwellfoundation.org
800-675-8416
Provides financial assistance to cover copayments, health care premiums, and deductibles for certain medications and therapies.

Joe’s House
www.joeshouse.org
877-563-7468
Provides a list of places to stay near treatment centers for people with cancer and their families.

LGBT Cancer Project
http://lgbtcancer.com/
Provides support and advocacy for the LGBT community, including online support groups and a database of LGBT-friendly clinical trials.

LIVESTRONG Fertility
www.livestrong.org/we-can-help/fertility-services
855-744-7777
Provides reproductive information and support to cancer patients and survivors whose medical treatments have risks associated with infertility.

Look Good Feel Better Program
www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org
800-395-LOOK (800-395-5665)
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 Institute
www.cancer.gov
800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237)

National Cancer Legal Services Network
www.nclsn.org
Free cancer legal advocacy program.

National LGBT Cancer Network
www.cancer-network.org
Provides education, training, and advocacy for LGBT cancer survivors and those at risk.

Needy Meds
www.needymeds.org
Lists Patient Assistance Programs for brand and generic name medications.

NYRx
www.nyrxplan.com
Provides prescription benefits to eligible employees and retirees of public sector employers in New York State.

Partnership for Prescription Assistance
www.pparx.org
888-477-2669
Helps qualifying patients without prescription drug coverage get free or low-cost medications.

Patient Access Network Foundation
www.panfoundation.org
866-316-7263
Provides assistance with copayments for patients with insurance.

Patient Advocate Foundation
www.patientadvocate.org
800-532-5274
Provides access to care, financial assistance, insurance assistance, job retention assistance, and access to the national underinsured resource directory.

RxHope
www.rxhope.com
877-267-0517
Provides assistance to help people get medications that they have trouble affording.

Breast Cancer Support Services

HIS Breast Cancer Awareness
www.hisbreastcancer.org
Offers education and information on male breast cancer.

Male Breast Cancer Coalition
www.malebreastcancercoalition.org
Patient advocacy organization that educates about male breast cancer.

SHARE
www.sharecancersupport.org
866-891-2392
Offers support groups for survivors of breast, metastatic breast, and ovarian cancer in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

Susan G. Komen
ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/BreastCancerinMen.html
Provides information and support services for men with breast cancer.

Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation
www.tnbcfoundation.org
Provides information to help people understand triple negative breast cancer.

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Educational Resources

This section contains the educational resources that were referred to throughout this guide. These resources will help you get ready for your surgery and recover safely after surgery.

Write down your questions and be sure to ask your doctor or nurse.

For more information about lymphedema, you can also read the New York State Department of Health’s resource Understanding Lymphedema.

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