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Mastectomy 101

What To Expect After A Mastectomy

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A mastectomy is usually done in a hospital.

Immediately after the surgery, you will be moved to a recovery room which is where you will wake up.

  • You will have a bandage over your breast area. 
  • There may be one or more tubes in your breast or underarm area. These are drains to remove blood and lymph fluids that can collect while you heal. (They may stay in when you go home. It is not unusual for drains to stay in for as long as a week). If a drain is left in, it is NOT a sign that something is wrong.

You will likely also be hooked up to:

  • An i.v. drip to keep fluids moving through your system. The drip may also include antibiotics to keep away unnecessary infections and other medicine. 
  • Monitoring machines, such as an EKG (a heart monitor). 

Family members are usually allowed to visit in a recovery area, but generally only for a limited amount of time, such as 10 minutes per hour.
When you are fully awake and your bodily functions are stable, you will be moved to a room. 

You will likely stay in the hospital for one or two nights.

While in the hospital:

  • It is up to you to be sure that you receive drugs and other treatments when you are supposed to, and that you are not unnecessarily exposed to risk of infection. Ideally, you will have a person who can act as your patient advocate with you as much time as possible so he or she can take over the function. For example, it is best not to let anyone touch you who has not disinfected his or her hands by washing (cleansing lotions do not kill all potential germs). For additional information, see the document in To Learn More.
  • Keep track of the services you receive so you can check your bill when you are discharged. This is important to do even if you have insurance. Overcharges show up as higher premiums.

Before leaving the hospital:

  • Find out what you can and cannot do - preferably in writing. For example, showering, taking a bath, exercise, lifting light or heavier objects.
  • Get a copy of the bill and check it - or ask someone to do it for you. Professionals are available if needed. (See the Survivorship A to Z document in To Learn More).
  • Get a printed form from your doctor telling you what you should do,  as well as what you can and cannot do. The American Cancer Society recommends that you at least ask the questions we have included in the document in To Learn More. As you will see, there is space to write the answers. You can print the form and take it with you to the hospital.   
  • Let your doctor know how well you do or do not tolerate pain so the doctor can prescribe appropriate medication. Keep in mind that as a general matter, doctors tend to under treat pain. Pain can slow healing. Let the doctor know if you want to be pain free. It is a myth to think that people who are prescribed pain medication will become addicted. Get the prescription filled before leaving the hospital. (If you can't get the prescription filled, the hospital pharmacy can give you a few pills to start or you can take pain medication just before leaving the hospital to give a friend time to fill your prescription). (See the document in To Learn More to learn about pain and treatment for pain).
  • If you do not have reconstructive surgery at the same time as your mastectomy, ask about when you can start wearing a breast form (prosthesis). (Tips about breast forms are in the document in "To Learn More."


  • You may experience Post-mastectomy Pain Syndrome (PMPS) after a Mastectomy. PMPS is chronic nerve (neuropathic) pain. According to the American Cancer Society, the classic signs of PMPS are chest wall pain and tingling down the arm. Pain may also be felt in the shoulder, scar, arm, or armpit. Other common complaints include numbness, shooting or pricking pain, or unbearable itching. Let your doctor know if you have any of these symptoms. PMPS can be treated with medications that work for nerve pain
  • If you haven't already, consider reconstruction of your breast. If your health insurance pays for a mastectomy, it likely also pays for reconstruction.
  • Check the hospital bill before you leave - or soon after you get home. A high percentage of hospital bills have mistakes. (Click here to learn how to understand a hospital bill). If necessary, learn how to negotiate the amount you owe a hospital. Click here.

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