My Favorite Things – Part One: What I Found Useful for My Recovery from Mastectomy
It was time to prepare for my upcoming mastectomy. I recall wondering what I would need. It was such an odd thing to think about. What would I wear? How was I going to feel? What could I do to prepare?
Well, it was a mystery to me as it may be to you and the many others who’ve experienced or are going to experience mastectomy. I Googled “ways to prepare for mastectomy” and came up feeling even more confused. What did a bra have to do with my upcoming surgery? It seemed to be so secretive. I just couldn’t seem to find anything regarding the preparation of surgery aspect, and what about clothing? A lot of sites had suggestions but without the needed explanations to go with.
So I had to wing it, vowing I would use my experience to help others. Now, following through on my promise to demystify this process for you, I’ll let you in on exactly what items I am glad to have on hand to aid in my recovery from mastectomy. But first…
Outpatient or Hospital Stay:
If you’ve been told you will be having surgery at a hospital it’s a good idea to ask your doctor how long the average stay will be because stay times can vary from person to person. Some stay overnight, while others have stayed up to three days or (in extremely rare cases) even longer.
My stay wasn’t even half a day and it wasn’t in the hospital! My mastectomy was preformed at my doctor’s out patient facility. I arrived at 5:45 a.m. and was home by 11:00 a.m. the same day. If you’re nervous because you’ve been scheduled for an out patient surgery allow me to put your mind at ease.
I was surprised (as was my family) that I would be going home as soon as my surgery was over. Looking back, my experience was amazing. I believe my care was better than any hospital could provide and because I came home after my surgery, I was less likely to get sick from infection. Better yet, I was able to have undisturbed rest.
In fact, the above picture is me, at home, only a few hours after my mastectomy.
Once you have your patient status details figured out, check out this list of my favorite things for recovery:
Addressing the obvious, you are going to have limited range of motion in your arm after surgery, so pulling something over your head will be challenging.
Not so obvious (and something I was not aware of until after my surgery) you will have at least one “drain.” This is a tube attached to you at your surgery site to drain fluid into its attached “bag”. Some people are grossed out by having to empty and care for their drain. Some people find it painful, while others hate it with a passion. I was not even aware of my drain until after I was home and coming out of my stupor. It was just something I had to deal with for a short time, and you will too.
Keep in mind that you’re not going to a beauty pageant. You are going to be home recovering from having your breast amputated from your body. This is no time for fashion (lucky for you that comes later). But I can suggest clothes that may make your recovery a little easier.
Here are the following clothing items for the first 5 days (while you have any drains):
Sweat Pants with Pockets
I got my sweatpants from Walmart. They are slouchy and have pockets that are not too big or deep, making it easy to pop a drain bag in the pocket while wondering around the house.
A Soft Front Opening Sweater (and I mean as soft as you can find)
I got this one at Walmart as well. The best thing about it, besides the fact that it is as soft as a teddy bear, it also has pockets to pop your drain bag into. If you live in a hot climate, try to find maybe a light (but still as soft as you can find) cotton or bamboo short robe in place of this type of sweater. Even though I live in California, I had my mastectomy in September, which is still a warm time of the year. I loved throwing this on to walk around the house without a top underneath.
An Oversized Tank Top with Larger Armholes
I suggest getting a pack of men’s (size medium or large) undershirts for two reasons. (1) Men’s armholes are larger than women’s, and (2) men’s undershirts are cheaper than women’s tanks.
A note on spaghetti straps – I know you probably have several women’s tank tops that are stretchy with spaghetti straps. You may be thinking “why go buy men’s tanks when I have a ton of tanks with spaghetti straps?” Please do not wear these for the first weeks after your surgery. When you have lymph nodes removed during a mastectomy you are susceptible to getting “truncal lymphedema.” By wearing thin elastic that cuts the circulation on your skin, you are cutting off the circulation of an already compromised lymph system. Let your body heal before wearing anything like this.
For after your removal of any drains and before you gain more arm movement:
A Super Soft T-Shirt in a Size Smaller than You Normally Wear
Again I recommend bamboo if you can find it but 100% cotton is also good. The reason I recommend a size smaller is because I found a tight fitting t-shirt to be very comfortable at first. It also helps to get used to the fact, once one of your breasts are removed, your sizing may be different. A snug fitting t-shirt hugs your body, which feels so good when your scar is sensitive. Plus, (unless you are given a compression bra) this helps to keep your remaining breast from going rouge on you until you get used to only having one breast. I bought a plain black t-shirt, which also helped with disguising my new shape so I felt less awkward in public.
*Note: your doctor may recommend and/or give you a compression bra when you wake from surgery (I was not). This is supposed to prevent seromas (fluid build up in your chest area). I can’t give any input on this due to never wearing one.*
Lets move on to the next thing that is most important from the minute you leave to get into your car…pillows.
I didn’t think of this and had no way of foreseeing it until I got into my car but be prepared to find wearing a seat belt super uncomfortable. There are several different ways to alleviate your discomfort. You can simply bring a pillow to the hospital when you are leaving so that you can wedge it between you and the seatbelt. Or you can be even more proactive and buy yourself either a heart-shaped mastectomy pillow or a similar protective cover designed to attach to your seatbelt like this one I found on Etsy.
I wish I had thought of this before my surgery. Later, I learned of a lot of people who used these types of seat belt protectors (and even still do) months after their mastectomies, either in the passenger seat or driver’s seat depending on whether or not they are driving and which breast has been removed.
Pillows for Your Bed
You can get really fancy and buy yourself a whole wedge system specifically for having a mastectomy. But the key notes here are: SUPER EXPENSIVE! And these will only be useful for a certain amount of time. I actually think you can do just as well (if not better and more useful down the line) by creating your own set up with the following pillows.
Four regular pillows – I am a feather pillow person myself, but you can use regular pillows if you desire. The reason I prefer feather is that they can be manipulated easier into the shape that you need.
One “bed rest” pillow – these are those pillows that look like the back of an armchair with the little sides that you can rest your arms on. You will want this for sitting up while you rest in bed.
A body pillow – this is the long pillow you can hug, cuddle, and wedge between yourself and your partner (or pet) while you recover.
The following pictures show how I arranged my pillows. At night I would take away the bed rest pillow and sometimes replace it with the body pillow.
As time went on, I used the body pillow to help me sleep on my side (which may take several weeks to over a month to accomplish). Be patient with yourself. You may find it extremely frustrating to have to always sleep on your back but this impossible phase will pass, I promise.
While we are on the topic of sleep, let’s address it – or lack of it! I found it incredibly difficult to sleep once I stopped taking my pain meds. (We will talk about why I realized I needed to stop taking the meds next.)
I had a hard time sleeping because I was uncomfortable and experiencing nerve pain. So here is my story. My hubby started knocking me out with some over-the-counter sleep meds which I highly recommend (alternatively use medical marijuana – you’ll read more about that in a moment). You need to get enough sleep or you will have a slower recovery and your pain (that may be endlessly gnawing at you) will seem SO MUCH MORE UNBEARABLE.
Let’s Address Pain Medication, aka Opiates:
Okay, I’ll let you in on a little something. I have two family members who have had addictions to drugs and my husband is SUPER SENSITIVE when it comes to pain medication. We don’t like it being in our house. However, you will need to take pain medication. Don’t be one of those people who are “braving it out.” You are an AMPUTEE…
So I did get the pain meds, but after the first 5 to 10 days my pain subsided to where it was not bad enough for me to warrant taking opioids all day. Unfortunately, after about week three, my nerve pain suddenly became excruciating and I was back to taking them.
Here is the problem. Opiates do not help with nerve pain. All they do is make us not care about the nerve pain. I realized I was getting into very muddy water with these medications and I came to understand how people can, unintentionally, abuse opiates. I stopped taking them. Then I found myself in a place I had, in years past, mocked others for being in: The Medical Marijuana Zone.
I live in California where it is now legal to purchase this drug. However, I had my mastectomy in the September before it became legal. So I found a local doctor who prescribed it and got my medical marijuana license. How did this come about? It started with a lunch date with my sisters…
I was having lunch with my sisters and mentioned to one of them that my nerve pain was so unbearable that I thought I was going to die from exhaustion. She pulled a little bottle that looked like lip gloss out of her purse and said “Try rubbing this on.”
Bless the Gods… within minutes the pain was gone! But what was in that little lip gloss container? It was cannabis infused oil. This was the first time I realized the need for medical marijuana is REAL. It’s not just for a bunch of hippies who want to walk around smoking joints.
The marijuana actually worked better than anything I had taken or tried to do to relieve my unbearable nerve pain. I can’t shout out enough how much this helped me. If you get nerve pain I highly recommend that you at least give it a try.
After getting my medicinal marijuana license I also got a tincture to help me sleep. Alternatively you can get edibles if you need help with sleep. Half a cookie, an hour before bed, is all most people need to get that much needed sleep.
Don’t Forget to Poop!
While we are on the opioid information train, lets address another thing I didn’t know until I was in agony….opioids can make you constipated. This story gets boldly explicit but I encourage you to forge ahead.
Even though my doctor let me know that this was going to be an issue, I had no idea how much of an issue it would be. Until I was at day 7.
I had been taking stool softeners for 3 days with no relief. I was “out of the office” in more ways than one…
Now it’s the evening of day 7, about 11:30 p.m. in fact, and I’m sitting on the toilet in agony. I’ve been sitting here for a while now. I have a stool propped up for my feet to get traction and I’ve been pushing harder than a woman in the throws of labor.
But nothing is coming. I beg my husband to do something or I’ll have to drive myself to the ER. (This may be funny now as I tell it but it was NO JOKE at that moment.) So my husband does what any good husband would do….he leaves!
Where has he gone? He drives to a 24-hour pharmacy and talks to the pharmacist. He tells the pharmacist what I have been taking and asks what he can do. He comes home with laxatives…
WTF? Laxatives? I’m so pissed! Doesn’t he understand that I’ve already been taking them for the last 3 days? BUT… I ACTUALLY WASN’T…
Did you know that stool softeners and laxatives are two different things?
I did not! This was news to me. Stool softeners do just that – they soften stool. But laxatives are what make the bowel muscles contract.
Within 10 minutes of taking the laxative I was finally emptying out, but it was not pretty. Don’t make the mistake I made. Use a laxative along with the stool softener. I was grateful that I was able to use this information to help make my subsequent surgery for my oophorectomy much smoother (pun intended).
Under Arm and Bathing Issues:
Let’s move onto another issue you may not know about your body after mastectomy if you have lymph nodes removed. Your armpit will feel super…strange.
I couldn’t quite understand or describe to others this bizarre feeling. It felt like someone put a sticker adhesive all over my armpit and down the inside of my underarm. It didn’t matter what I did, how much I put water on it, or even when I tried to lightly washing it, the sticky feeling didn’t go away.
Some doctors recommend you not take a shower until your drains and/or bandages are removed. You also won’t be able to shave under your arm for some time (since you have had one or several of your lymph nodes removed). Because of this and the sticky sensation you will experience under your arm, I recommend you have some baby wipes on hand. You may also find helpful applying some organic cornstarch with a makeup brush under your arm to alleviate this strange “sticky” sensation. Regarding the sticky sensation (and an inability to shave) you may also want to get some cornstarch and brush it on with an old makeup brush.
A Handy Water Bottle:
Maybe you already have a water bottle, as I know they are popular. I see people with them all the time at work or the gym. However, I really detest water bottles and anything plastic in general.
So it should come as a great shock when I actually ended up FALLING IN LOVE with the gift my hubby went out and bought me just after he got me home and put me to bed. This metal cup keeps my water cold. It is larger than most water containers and it had a durable plastic straw. I know, I thought I was going to hate it – but I am actually super in love with it and use it all the time. It’s on my nightstand right now. Not gonna lie. And to make me super happy every time I drink out of it I added a cute sticker made by a local artist.
This wraps up my first of a two part series. From hospital vs. outpatient stays, drains, pillows and sleep aids, we have talked about all the things I found highly helpful and necessary for recovering from my mastectomy.
Watch out for Part Two where I will be recommending various books, podcasts, products, stretches and more of my favorite things that helped in my recovery from mastectomy. If there is something you found helpful to add to the list, contact me so I can update this article for women who are going to be having their mastectomies in the future!
Don’t forget, I don’t need two breasts to be a “whole” woman, and neither do you!
This is Part One of a Two Part Series
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