The Complete Guide to Understanding Breast Reconstruction: Recovering from Breast Reconstruction Surgery | Part 3/5
Recovering from Breast Reconstruction Surgery | What to expect
After your mastectomy, you may choose to do your reconstruction immediately. If that’s the case, plan to be in the hospital a few days for recovery. The medical staff will want to monitor your pain level and drainage sites carefully before you are released from the hospital.
If you opt to do your reconstruction a few months after your mastectomy, it’s possible that your implants could be done in a same-day procedure if there are not factors such as excess scar tissue for your surgeon to contend with.
You can expect to feel soreness after breast reconstruction, just as you would following any surgery. You may also experience some pain. You should let your doctor or other healthcare staff know if you are hurting so that they can give you medication and/or tips to reduce your pain.
Probably while you are still in the hospital, you will be expected to do arm and shoulder exercises focused on the side of the affected breast (or both if you mastectomy is bilateral). These exercises will decrease the length of time you feel sore after surgery, and they will also decrease the amount of scar tissue you develop.
When you are discharged from the hospital, you will need to be familiar with the care of your incisions, bandages and drainage tube. You should be able to clean the areas properly if your doctor requests that. If not, simply knowing how to recognize the first signs of infection could keep you from getting very sick.
Follow ups and post operative care
You will have a follow-up visit with your doctor 1 to 2 weeks after your reconstruction. At this time, he or she may remove your drainage tube if you still have it. The doctor may also comment on your swelling or bruising, if any exists. He or she can give insight into what the rest of your recovery may look like at this point.
Some patients are able to return to work and other normal activities as soon as 3 weeks post-op. Even patients undergoing a flap reconstruction have known to recover this quickly.
Remember: Any time is a good time to ask your doctor or surgeon a question about your recovery!
Possible risks during and after reconstruction surgery
As with any surgery, breast reconstruction carries risks. The recovery process, too, can be a precarious time when you must watch carefully for symptoms that may lead to a bigger problem.
Infection at the reconstruction site is a common risk for all reconstruction patients. Those undergoing flap reconstructions will also have the risk of infection at the donor site as well. Your doctor will inform you about the first signs of infection.
Risk of hematoma
A hematoma, pooling of blood under the skin, can develop after mastectomy or after your breast reconstruction surgery. Similarly, a seroma – just the watery part of the blood – can form under the skin. A surgical drain used during and after surgery should lessen the chance of this happening, but it won’t prevent them entirely. Hematomas and seromas can occur after implant or flap reconstruction procedures.
Unfortunately, if you choose to do an implant reconstruction, rupture of your breast implant is a risk that you will have to live with as long as you have the implant. You will be able to tell if your implant has ruptured if you have a change in the size, shape or contour of your breast. You will need to visit your surgeon if your implant ruptures in order to have it repaired or removed.
Risk of capsular contracture
Capsular contracture is a risk associated with implants as well. This happens when the tissue around the implant tightens, causing it to feel hardened. Your breast may become misshaped or the implant may become less realistic because of capsular contracture. This condition is treated by removing the hardened tissue or removing the whole implant.
Flap reconstruction carries the risk of necrosis, or tissue death, particularly if your surgeon does not have enough skill or experience to complete the microvascular procedures necessary to supply the tissue with sufficient blood flow. Nothing can be done to reverse necrosis, so it is possible that you could lose the skin at the donor site and also not have the flap for reconstruction.
All reconstruction procedures hold the risk of changes in breast sensitivity. While some people report a heightened sensitivity in the breast area, far more report that they have anywhere from a decrease to a complete loss of sensitivity after reconstruction surgery.
How to Heal Faster | Geting Back to Normal
First and foremost, follow your doctor’s orders to the letter in order to avoid setbacks in your recovery process. Some reconstruction procedures may allow for stretching, exercising, sexual activity and overhead lifting at certain points of your recovery, while others may not.
The biggest stumbling block on your road to recovery may be smoking. If you smoke, you have a very good chance of inhibiting your body’s ability to heal. If your cancer is diagnosed early and you have time to plan your mastectomy or lumpectomy a month or two out, stop smoking immediately to give your body its best chance to heal after surgery.
Healing after surgery
Accept that the process will take time. Two to three months after breast reconstruction, you will feel much better, and you will begin to see the bruising and swelling fade. Within a year scars will be much less noticeable. After 2 years, you may regain some of the sensation in your breast area. Celebrate and savor each stage of the process.
Don’t be afraid to take pain medication if you need it. Studies show that patients who manage their pain heal more quickly than patients who do not. Also, take it easy for a couple of weeks. Don’t overdo it with household chores or other responsibilities. Ask for help around the house or hire someone to help you with everyday tasks if necessary.
Do the stretches and arm exercises that your doctor prescribes religiously. These exercises are designed to keep the chest area from becoming too tight or from atrophying. They will also be significant in reducing the amount of scar tissue that is present if you decide to do a delayed reconstruction.
To reduce discomfort, itchiness and tightness around your incisions, use a scar cream or oil at least once a day. This is best done after the incisions have fully healed, so around 6 weeks after surgery.
The loss and reconstruction of a breast or both breasts can be an emotional experience. Make sure you have a confidant to share your feelings with. You may find it necessary to join a support group of women who have been through similar procedures or talk with a professional who is trained in talking you through this time in your life.