PHOTO NOTE: This photo was taken with my dad after I graduated from Northern Illinois University (Masters in Public Administration in May, 2011).
INTRO: Some things you don’t learn in the classroom, but only by going through it firsthand. I took my frustrated energies and created a list of helpful hints that will hopefully make your recovery just a bit easier.
BRITTA’S TOP 10 TIPS - POST MASTECTOMY:
1. Rest. Take it totally easy the first full week. Take multiple naps, watch movies and relax. Have people do almost everything for you to avoid overdoing it.
2. Drains hurt! There is no way around this. They are sewn into your body to stay in place. Their job is to keep body fluid flowing out of the area operated on to avoid swelling – they are doing their job, so remember that when you are cursing them and their pinching and discomfort. A small pillow placed in between your side and armpit can help reduce the friction and pain. Also a pillow purse can also help avoid the bumping. Warning…drains can be painful when you empty them. Once you empty them the suction is better and pressure increases. If this pain catches you off guard, you can unplug the drain to temporarily ease the pressure until you can get situated better. Plan to take your pain meds one full hour prior to emptying your drains to minimize your pain. NOTE: Take a FULL dose of pain meds one hour prior to your appointment to get your drains out. This can be a very painful procedure so plan ahead (and bring in a friendly hand to squeeze). The surgeon first snips the stitches, then pulls out the tube with a firm yank. No butts about it – it will hurt, but having no drains is SO much better.
3. Pain Medication. Don’t be afraid to take this regularly. When you are in pain (past a 4 of 10) it is too late. It seems counterintuitive to take pain meds when you are not in a lot of pain, but the job of medicine is to avoid pain (and relieve pain as well). Managing pain early on avoids feeling miserable waiting for pain meds to kick in. If one pain med isn’t working for you or making you have bad side effects, call your doctor and get a different one. You should not have to be in horrible pain, so don’t be a martyr. Keep a regimented schedule for the first week, then reassess after your drains come out.
4. Doctor visits/car trips. Plan your pain meds accordingly before you go see the doctor. You’ll be moving around in ways you haven’t been at home, so, again, plan ahead to avoid a painful trip. Bring a pillow with you to put between you and the seat belt too.
5. Sleeping. take your full dose of pain meds one hour prior to bed and sleep in the guest room if you have one. Spread out and put a pillow under your affected side/s. Simply elevating affected arm/s takes off the pressure.
6. Physical Therapy (PT). If your surgeon or the hospital doesn’t give you exercises to do at home to help your recovery and range of motion (ROM), ask for a PT prescription! A PT will help you regain ROM and massage your scar tissue, adhesions and also give you encouragement. Some PT’s are also certified in lymphedema, a painful condition of arm swelling that can happen when lymph nodes are removed. Put a PT on your care team and help yourself heal faster. You might also try ASTYM treatment that helps regenerate the affected areas more quickly, but check with your doctor first. Here is a link to get you moving http://breastcancer.about.com/od/lifeaftertreatment/ss/arm_exercises_tutorial.htm.
7. Fatigue. This is normal, but very frustrating. Ease into your ‘normal’ routine. Your body is recovering from a major ordeal and healing takes a lot of your cellular energy. Work in ‘spurts’ – maybe three a day – one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. A spurt may only last 15 minutes or up to an hour or two depending on where you are in your recovery. Plan a small little chore to do for your next spurt (not shoveling the snow off the driveway) so you have something to look forward to and feel a small sense of accomplishment. Work on a scrapbook, organize your photos, empty the dishwasher, and arrange flowers, whatever you feel like doing, just don’t over do it.
8. To Cammy or Not? If you did not have reconstructive surgery, you may want to purchase a camisole. Most insurance covers this and you can be fitted for a prosthetic to slip in the cami. Some camisoles are designed to hold your drains – that would be better than the constant pinning and unpinning of the drains! You should wait until your drains are out to be fitted for a prosthetic insert. Specialty boutiques take appointments; ask to make sure their staff are certified fitters to make sure you get a proper fit from caring and knowledgeable professionals. Also, the American Cancer Society has resources at no cost if this is an issue.
9. Resume Exercise. The sooner you can get up and about, the faster you will heal. Everyone is encouraged to walk. Start by walking the halls of the hospital – one lap on day one, two laps on day two, or whatever you feel up to. This is not a race, so listen to your body and stop when you are tired or dizzy and rest when you are tired. When you get home from the hospital, walk to the end of the block, then a bit further each time. Take someone with you if you feel unsteady and don’t walk outside if weather is icy or unsafe. You don’t want to create more problems by falling! Take your cell phone with you as a precaution so you can make a phone call if you need to get help.
10. Reach Out. You are undergoing something that is not natural. Losing a breast or breasts is very a major deal both physically and emotionally. Cry when you need to and laugh when you can. Do not crawl up into a ball and feel sorry for yourself (easier said than done). There are other women that have gone through what you are feeling. The American Cancer Society has the “Reach to Recovery” program that can match you up with a volunteer who has experienced much of what you are going through. Also, Immerman Angels can pair you with someone whose breast cancer experience is similar. I participated in Living Well Cancer Resource’s “Mastectomy Support Group” and was able to share confidentially with other women who have walked in my shoes. Don’t suffer in silence! Talking is therapeutic and helps heal your inner feminine self. Also check online resources to help answer questions and know you are not in this alone. Check the links section of this website for mentioned resources and others you may find helpful.