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Tips for Recovering From Breast Cancer Surgery

Please note: These are general guidelines and may not apply to every patient. Always follow your doctor's specific instructions for care after surgery.

How Do I Care for My Drainage Device?

You may be discharged from the hospital after breast cancer surgery with an external drainage device in place. The drain will continuously remove fluid from the surgery site into a collection device. You will be responsible for emptying it. Your health care provider will show you how to care for your drain before you leave the hospital.

The amount of fluid drained over a 24-hour period will gradually decrease. The color of the fluid may also change from a cherry red to a yellow-red, and then to a straw-colored fluid. Usually the drainage system is removed within a week after surgery.

When Can I Get My Incision Wet?

After breast cancer surgery, the incision should be kept clean and dry for 1 week. Because of this, sponge baths are preferable to showers. Bathing in a bathtub is OK if the incision area is kept dry. Small pieces of tape (called Steri-Strips) will remain over the incision. Steri-Strips usually fall off by themselves.

Do not go swimming until you have discussed this with your doctor at your follow-up appointment. Confirm all this with your surgeon to make sure they do not have any other concerns.

When and How Do I Change My Bandages?

A special bra (Surgi-Bra) will be worn, which holds bandages in place after the surgery. A health care provider will tell you when this bra may be removed. Dressings should be changed once a day. A health care provider will show you the proper technique.

If possible, it's a good idea to have someone help you change the bandages.

What Should I Take for the Pain?

You will be given a prescription for pain medication after breast cancer surgery. Ask your doctor about taking over-the-counter pain relievers in addition to, or instead of, your prescription pain medicine. Do not take aspirin or products containing aspirin for the first 3 days after the procedure, as they may raise the risk of bleeding.

How Do I Care for the Skin Near the Incision?

The involved area may be black and blue right after breast cancer surgery. This will go away in a few days. There may be numbness, tingling, or discomfort on the inner part of the upper arm or in the armpit. This is normal. 

With the doctor's approval, try to increase an exercise routine and take a mild pain reliever such as acetaminophen. A warm shower may also provide comfort, but remember to wait 1 week after surgery before taking a shower.

When shaving under the arm or applying deodorant, look in the mirror to avoid irritating the incision.

As the incision heals, it may feel thick and tough. Massage the area with a mild lotion, vitamin E, or pure lanolin. Avoid highly perfumed lotions and any product containing alcohol, because they may be irritating. After several weeks, the scar will soften.

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