When I was given the news I tested positive for the BRCA2 gene in March, I didn’t know that by June I would have had a double mastectomy to be recovering from. I made the decision in April giving me minimal time to research what the recovery process would be and what that would even look like. In fact, most recovery information was just pushing buying things and while that was helpful, I needed something that was a little more intuitive to how things would feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. People were offering help and I didn’t know what I would need so I couldn’t say. There were so many questions and just not really a lot of answers which is why I decided to create this ultimate mastectomy recovery guide to help answer the most common questions I’ve been asked and had.

I’m currently a little more than 6 weeks out of surgery writing this though I will keep this updated the more questions I’m asked and the more information I learn. I’ve done video updates on my TikTok account that I’ll migrate over to my YouTube as well. If you do have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via my socials or email. I will be sharing things I’ve bought and loved or didn’t love and the links used will be affiliates that I earn from. With that, let’s jump into it!

The Ultimate Guide to Mastectomy Recovery

How long does it take to recover from a mastectomy?

This depends. If you’re doing a mastectomy without reconstruction and you don’t have pre-existing cancer, your recovery is estimated to be about 3 weeks. With reconstruction using implants, it’s around the same time–this is what I did. If you opt to reconstruct using a DIEP flap or latissimus dorsi flap, recovery is longer because there is more than the incision that’s for the breast/chest area. With the DIEP flap, there is a fat transfer done, normally from the stomach, that has to heal as well. The latissimus dorsi flap takes a muscle from your back leaving another incision to heal. Both of these options also require additional time in the hospital post-surgery.

If you have cancer, your recovery will likely be longer depending on how your cancer is being or has been treated. Also important to note is that if you get an infection, this will add more time to your healing as well.

What can I expect in terms of pain and discomfort after the surgery?

I have a pretty high pain tolerance and on the day of surgery, I was in pain. I was prescribed oxycodone for pain and I hated it. It made my head hurt and didn’t take the pain away. The pain felt like a deep, burning sensation–not superficial like a cut. By day 3 I was out of pain and was just uncomfortable. It felt like days 2-3 after doing a chest workout in the gym. Like you went hard and didn’t think you would have to do anything with your upper body for a while. After the first week, I stopped using all meds minus the antibiotics. If you’re a woman reading this, make sure you ask for a prescription for diflucan with your antibiotics–no need to add more discomfort to the plate! I also made sure to take my probiotic religiously.

By week 2, I started feeling more independent and was able to empty my drains by myself, do more walking, and care for myself. It was important to me that I not stay too still because that isn’t something that feels restful for me. I gave myself assignments and activities like stretching my legs and hips that helped me be more comfortable while I was sitting. The sitting caused more discomfort in other parts of my body–namely my sciatica and hips. Four weeks later, I have minimal discomfort unless I’ve been doing something with my upper body and it’s really a feeling of fatigue.

Are there any specific precautions I need to take during the recovery period?

My doctor advised me of the following and I highly recommend talking to yours to see what they say for you specifically:

  • Take walks every hour for 5-15 minutes depending on what you can tolerate.
  • No showers until all the drains have been removed to prevent infection.
  • Massage the surrounding tissue to break up the scar tissue so it doesn’t harden.
  • Don’t let your heart rate get above 100 bpm for the first 3 weeks post-surgery.
  • Keep your nipples moisturized with Aquaphor at all times (I had a free-nipple graft meaning I still have my nipples).
  • Don’t lift heavy items.
  • Listen to your body and do things that make you feel rested.
  • Wear compression socks.

I want to emphasize walking and doing things that make you feel rested. Walking is really important because it helps the blood flow. When I wasn’t walking, I had my feet up to prevent swelling and leg issues later on. I also had a plethora of activities from reading to hand embroidery to knitting to help keep me occupied. I also wore compression socks.

When can I resume my regular activities, such as driving, exercising, or returning to work?

You can’t drive while you have the drains in so a minimum of 2 weeks for sure on that. Exercising is about 3 weeks–because of the BPM thing I referenced above. Returning to work really depends on what you do. If you work from home and it’s not a really physically rigorous job, I would say about a month. But a more physical job would really depend on how you’re feeling.

One thing I didn’t really anticipate is how draining healing is. At about 6 weeks out, I still have days that I tire easier than others and that’s something to factor in.

How should I care for my surgical incisions and drains during mastectomy recovery?

Your incision will likely have a glue that protects it from water and dirt and grime–especially since showering while having the drains can increase your chances of infection. If you did the free nipple graft, keep your nipples slathered with Aquafor until it’s healed from the mastectomy. The drains you should be emptying about 3-4 times daily in the first couple of days and then you’ll likely be able to slow down to 2 times daily until they’re removed.

Once your drains are removed, you’re free to resume your normal showering activities. I used my regular soap which I get from Herben Eden and was good to go. Once the glue comes off, using a scar GEL (not tape and you want to rub the gel in) will be helpful to reduce the appearance of the scars. Because I’m really particular about what I use on my skin–especially now–I chose the Active Skin Repair Hydrogel. I started using it about 3 weeks post-surgery and my scars look amazing.

Are there any specific clothing or bra recommendations during the recovery phase?

This specific question here is why I really wanted to put this post together. When I did my research, everyone was talking about these compression bras. Well listen, you do NOT need a compression bra at all. You don’t need to spend a bunch of money buying things you don’t need or won’t use again.

Regarding clothing, button-down shirts will make dressing easier. I was wearing tanks pretty early on with the help of my husband. My favorite tanks to wear are the ones from Parade–use code “aaronicabcole” for a discount if you want to try them too. But they are seriously the softest tanks in the world. There are lots of fancy and expensive things marketed to mastectomy patients and while they’re nice, they aren’t needed. All you need is this here fanny pack thing to pop your drains in while you still have them.

As far as bras, this really depends on how you’re feeling. I feel best being braless because as I’m healing, my skin is more sensitive in the areas that weren’t exactly cut through. I want soft clothes and nothing compression. I wouldn’t go out and buy anything until you see how you feel. My fave bralettes are the seamless ones from Target for like 9.99.

What are some common side effects or complications that may occur after a mastectomy, and when should I seek medical attention?

After a mastectomy, several side effects and complications may arise. It’s essential to be aware of them, and if you experience any concerning symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention. Some common side effects and complications include:

  1. Pain and Discomfort: It is normal to experience pain, tenderness, and discomfort in the chest and surrounding areas after a mastectomy. This can be managed with pain medications prescribed by your doctor.
  2. Swelling and Bruising: Swelling (edema) and bruising may occur in the chest and arm on the side of the surgery. Wearing compression garments and doing gentle arm exercises can help alleviate these symptoms.
  3. Limited Range of Motion: You may experience limited arm movement on the side of the mastectomy. Physical therapy exercises can aid in restoring flexibility and strength.
  4. Lymphedema: This condition involves the buildup of lymph fluid in the arm, hand, or chest area due to the removal of lymph nodes during surgery. Seek immediate medical attention if you notice persistent swelling, heaviness, or a feeling of tightness in the affected arm.
  5. Infection: Surgical wounds can become infected. Watch for signs such as increased redness, warmth, swelling, pus, or fever, and contact your doctor promptly if you suspect an infection.
  6. Seroma: A seroma is a collection of fluid that can accumulate under the skin near the surgical site. If it becomes large, painful, or doesn’t resolve on its own, inform your medical team.
  7. Numbness and Tingling: It’s common to experience numbness or tingling in the chest or upper arm after surgery. This may improve over time, but notify your doctor if you have concerns.
  8. Phantom Sensation: Some individuals may experience phantom sensations in the breast or nipple area after a mastectomy. These sensations typically decrease over time.
  9. Emotional and Psychological Effects: Mastectomy can have profound emotional and psychological impacts. If you experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, or difficulty coping, consider seeking counseling or support groups.
  10. Wound Healing Issues: Keep a close eye on your surgical incisions for signs of poor healing, such as opening, oozing, or delayed closure.

For reference, I have had none of these issues and while they do happen, they’re rare. Make sure that you talk to your healthcare provider to ask them what their process is if something happens.

How can I manage emotional and psychological aspects during the mastectomy recovery process?

I think that oftentimes people forget that your mind and heart also need care during the physical healing process. Going in, I would make sure I had some affirmations that were geared toward healing and the healing process. Some of the affirmations I had in my toolbox were:

  1. I am strong, and my body is capable of healing.
  2. Healing energy flows through me, bringing restoration and renewal.
  3. Every day, I am getting better and stronger.
  4. My body knows how to heal itself, and I trust in its innate wisdom.
  5. I release any negative energy and embrace the healing power within me.
  6. I am worthy of love and care during my healing journey.
  7. I am surrounded by support and love from friends, family, and the universe.
  8. I am resilient, and this healing process will make me even stronger.
  9. My mind, body, and spirit are in harmony, promoting complete healing.
  10. Each breath I take brings healing energy into every cell of my body.
  11. I am patient with myself as I allow the healing process to unfold naturally.
  12. I release any fear or doubt and replace them with trust and optimism.
  13. My body and mind are in perfect alignment, working together for healing.
  14. I am grateful for my body’s ability to heal and recover.
  15. I let go of the past and embrace a future filled with health and vitality.

Here’s the thing: healing takes a HUGE toll on our ego because it’s hard to heal. In most cases, it doesn’t feel good at all. But it’s always worth it. I shared with my TikTok and IG communities that it was jarring to see myself post-mastectomy. And not just the first time. Every time. My body looked so different. I was in pain and discomfort. I wanted to be doing things I wasn’t able to do. My scars looked ugly to me.

I wanted to cry at first look. My husband watched me as I looked and then looked away and asked if I was ok. And I was honest with him–I wasn’t ok and I felt hideous. As soon as I admitted my truth, it was easy to let it go. He affirmed me, my decision, and my beauty. I share this to remind you that honesty is part of the healing process. Be honest with yourself and others so they know how they need to show up for you.

And that’s the other thing. Have a village. Yes, you’ll need food and help to get around. But what you’ll need more is the people that remind you who you are. You were a dope ass person before your mastectomy and you’ll be one after. Remember that.

How can I address body image concerns and adjust to the changes in my appearance?

This is hard and something that is really unique to you as a person.

I was in Joann’s 2 weeks post-surgery (yes, I was out shopping because that’s what was feeding my spirit) and I happened to be flipping through a catalog of patterns when I was joined by this beautiful woman. Now listen, one thing about me is that I don’t meet strangers so when I saw her flip to a pattern in the Vogue Pattern book, I was like “Wow, that is so beautiful!!!” and she agreed with me saying that she could never pull it off. I was genuinely confused because I knew the pattern came in her size.

She went on to share that she had a mastectomy years ago and she didn’t feel beautiful after it. I told her I’d just had a mastectomy a couple of weeks ago too and I understood that it comes with some body image baggage. She was shocked because 1. I was at Joann’s lol and 2. I wasn’t completely flat. Apparently, she didn’t know reconstruction was a thing so I gave her my plastic surgeon’s information. I don’t know if she was eligible for it but at least she could explore her options.

I share this story because you should be prepared to go into surgery know what it is you want and speak about those possibilities. A TikTok friend who is also BRCA+ has decided she wants to be flat post-surgery and get a beautiful tattoo. I knew going into surgery I wanted boobs and my nipples. Courtesy of social media, we have access to seeing so many things. Look for bodies that look like yours to see what the possibility of change will be. Ask questions. Have an idea of what you want prior to surgery. Talk to people. It will help.

This is a living post that I’ll keep updated with questions and answers as I’m asked.

Please know that I’m here to help and if you have questions about your mastectomy recovery or want to add things, shoot me a message to aaronica@aaronicabcole.com. Let’s make sure we’re taking care of each other.