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What to Expect After Surgery for Breast Cancer

The length of time you stay in the hospital depends mostly on your overall health and the type of surgery you had. It can also depend on what your insurance will cover. You may want to check on this. Your health care providers will explain the side effects you can expect with each form of treatment. They can also suggest ways to help prevent or manage these side effects. It is important that you let your health care provider know if you have side effects. Below is a description of general side effects associated with breast cancer surgery. They’re listed in order of the most common to the least common.

  • Temporary pain. This can occur from the incisions (cuts).

  • Shift in weight or feeling off-balance. If you had large breasts, losing one or both of them can make you feel off-balance and make your neck or back hurt.

  • Tightness in your skin. The skin near your breast may feel tight. Sometimes your arm and shoulder muscles will feel stiff, too.

  • Stiffness in your underarm after lymph node removal. Gentle exercises and massage therapy can help with stiffness. You should avoid hair removal creams, strong deodorants, and shaving under your arm for about 2 weeks after surgery.

  • Lack of feeling in the skin on your breast or upper arm. When your breast is removed, nerves must be cut. This may cause short-term numbness. Usually, most of the feeling returns within 1 to 2 years after surgery.

  • Phantom breast sensations. You may feel like your breast is still there. People who lose limbs often have this feeling, too. The feeling usually goes away over time.

  • Lymphedema. If you’ve had your underarm lymph nodes removed, you may have swelling in your chest, arm, and hand on the side where you had surgery. While this is normal right after surgery, it can later become a long-term problem. Be sure you understand what to watch for and what to do to help keep this from happening. 

  • Infection. Although not common, infection is a risk whenever you have surgery. Alert your health care provider if you have any swelling, redness, warmth, drainage, fever, or sudden pain.

  • Blood loss. Bleeding after surgery is another rare side effect. If you have a history of bleeding, let your health care provider know before surgery.

  • Reaction to anesthesia. This is also a rare side effect. If you or any of your family members have a history of reactions to anesthesia, you should let your health care provider and anesthesiologist (a doctor who gives sleep medicine) know before your surgery.

Your emotional and psychological health

Losing one or both of your breasts can be an emotionally difficult experience. After surgery, you and your husband or partner should take the time to talk about how you feel. You may feel that you need counseling. Studies have shown that most women don’t experience long-term depression or sexual problems after surgery for breast cancer. If you’re young, though, you might be more likely to feel anger, resentment, or depression. Ask your health care provider for the names and locations of support groups or counselors if you feel you need one.