Recently, Angelina Jolie famously (and controversially) had a double mastectomy in response to discovering that she has a defective BRCA1 gene and so had, according to her doctors, an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer. What can you expect if you have a mastectomy?
What is a mastectomy?
A mastectomy is surgery done to remove all of the breast tissue from a breast. This is done either as a way to treat or to prevent breast cancer. These days, it can be possible to do the surgery while keeping the breast skin – which makes the breast look more natural afterwards. Breast reconstruction – which gives shape to your breast – can be done at the same time as the mastectomy or in a procedure at a later date.
Mastectomy and your emotions
Just because you know that having a mastectomy is the wise course of action doesn’t make it an easy decision to make. You know it’s not only your body that will be different after a mastectomy, and the healing will not just be physical. For many women, her breasts symbolise her femininity – even her ability to nurture – and so losing a breast can impact on her self-image enormously. Having to undergo surgery can make you feel scared and overwhelmed and even depressed. You can feel alone and helpless. And of course, you might worry about your attractiveness after the surgery.
There will follow a period of grief for the loss of your breast – and for the person you thought you were. Also, there is the fear that the cancer might return. But do know this: cliché or not, time really does heal – both your physical scars and emotional ones.
Common side effects
It normally takes about three to six weeks to recover from a mastectomy, but this can vary from person to person. You will probably feel pain and tightness in the breast area and the arms and shoulders too – especially if your lymph glands have been removed. Some women experience itching inside the breast, which is related to the nerve endings which have been cut or damaged during the surgery. Do talk to your doctor about your levels of pain.
How to cope after a mastectomy
* Rest! Any kind of surgery is brutal on the body and it needs time to heal and recover. If you are tired, don’t “push on through”! Be kind to yourself and nap as often as you need to.
* Do your arm exercises every day to keep things flexible.
* Take your pain medication.
* Try to focus on the positive: you are a survivor! You are strong and courageous! Having said that, do allow yourself time to mourn the loss of your breast too.
* Eat well and use food as medicine to keep healthy.
* Communicate with your loved ones – especially your partner, and when it comes to your feelings about sex.
* Surround yourself with people who love and support you.
* Try to join a cancer survivor’s group. Being with people who have experienced what you have can help you to feel understood and heard; and their inspiring stories will keep you motivated.
Other articles you may be interested in:
Reader story: How I survived breast cancer
How to do a breast self-examination
Men and breast cancer
Breast cancer awareness month
Regular health check up’s you’ve got to have