In addition to the fear of losing their lives to breast cancer, women undergoing mastectomies can also suffer from both physical and emotional side effects following their surgeries. It's important to know what to expect after surgery and to take advantage of follow-up care as recommended by your doctor. The more you understand and follow the instructions from your doctor and caregivers, the quicker you can recover.
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A mastectomy is an operation for removing a breast, done because of breast cancer or if there is a strong history of breast cancer in a woman's family. Besides removing a breast, a simple mastectomy also removes some skin as well as the nipple. Lymph nodes, which are part of the immune system, can also be removed from armpits.
Pain and Tightness Discomfort
A common side effect following a mastectomy is pain or tightness in the breast area, as well as arms and shoulders. This is especially true if the lymph glands have been removed. Breast pain may include itching, feelings of pressure, throbbing and the feeling of pins and needles. Small nerves are cut between the skin area and breast tissue during surgery, which causes the cranial neural connections to undergo plasticity or reorganisation, creating pain. It's important to report the severity of the pain to your doctor for proper pain management.
A chronic condition known as lymphedema is a primary side effect after the removal of the auxiliary lymph nodes. Lymphedema, also known as swelling of the arms, occurs in 15 out of 100 women who have a mastectomy involving the removal of all underarm lymph nodes, according the National Cancer Institute.
If you develop an infection at the site of the operation, you need to take antibiotics. Only a small percentage of women get a wound infection following a mastectomy. Appearing as redness (cellulitis), a collection of pus gathers underneath the skin (abscess). Treatment may involve surgical drainage or antibiotics.
Following the mastectomy, you will have a scar at the site of the surgery. The appearance of the scar depends on the surgery. Ensure your surgeon thoroughly explains what to expect.
Fluid will collect around the site of the operation. Known as seroma, fluid collection is typically absorbed after a few weeks, but if it's uncomfortable or large, it may need to be drained. As the wound heals, a drain from the underarm or breast disposes of blood and fluid. It's important to properly care for the drain by emptying it when full. Besides emptying the drain (or drains if both breasts are removed) and recording the amount of collected fluid, be sure to report any problems.
Emotional and Other Side Effects
A loss of female identity can be a side effect of a mastectomy. Following surgery, a woman may feel differently about her body. Having breasts removed can generate anxious feelings, uncertainty and depression as breasts are linked with femininity and sexuality. Other side effects may include weight gain, breast sensitivity, muscle stiffness and joint pain. All of these side effects may cause a woman to avoid various activities she used to enjoy.
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