Tips for Recovering From Breast Cancer Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 24, 2023
5 min read

These are general guidelines for recovering from breast cancer surgery. Always follow your doctor's specific instructions for care after your operation.

After your surgery, you may be discharged from the hospital with an external drainage device in place. The drains will remove and collect fluid from the surgery site. Your doctor will show you how to care for the device before you leave the hospital. This usually includes emptying the drains, measuring the fluid, and keeping an eye out for any problems.

The amount of fluid that drains will gradually decrease. The fluid color may also change from a cherry red to a yellow-red and then to a straw color. Usually, the drainage system is removed within 1 to 3 weeks after surgery.

You’ll get a special bra that holds bandages in place after surgery. Your doctor will tell you when this bra may be removed and will show you how to change the dressings from your surgery.

If possible, have someone help you.

Keep your incision clean and dry for 1 week after surgery. You may need to take sponge baths rather than showers. Bathing in a bathtub is OK if you keep the incision area dry.

Small pieces of tape will remain over the incision. They usually fall off by themselves.

Don’t go swimming until your doctor and surgeon say it’s OK.

The area may be black and blue right after breast cancer surgery. This will go away in a few days. You might be numb or uncomfortable or have tingling on the inner part of your upper arm or in your armpit. This is normal.

A warm shower feels nice, but wait at least a week after surgery.

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

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

Your doctor will give you a prescription for pain medication after breast cancer surgery. Ask about taking over-the-counter pain relievers in addition to, or instead of, your prescription pain medicine.

Don’t take aspirin or products with aspirin for the first 3 days after the procedure. They can make you more likely to bleed.

Daily stretching exercises can help you regain mobility, but talk to your surgeon about when to start them.

  • Arm lifts. sitting on the edge of a chair, or standing, lift both arms over your head with your elbows close to your ears. Hold for a count of five and repeat.
  • Arm swings. While standing, swing both arms forward and back from your shoulders (like a pendulum). Keep your elbows straight. Increase the distance of the swing each time. Repeat 10 times.
  • Wall climbing. Stand facing a wall with your feet close to the wall. Put your arms out in front of you with your hands on the wall. Climb the fingertips of both hands up the wall, until your arms are stretched over your head. Climb your fingers back down the wall. Repeat 10 times, trying to reach higher each time.

Ask your doctor before you get back behind the wheel. Most women can start driving again 10 to 14 days after surgery.

Regular follow-up visits are important after breast cancer treatment. Your doctor will watch you closely to ensure that the cancer hasn’t returned. Checkups usually include exams of the chest, underarm, and neck.

Your doctor will typically want to see you every few months at first, but visits will likely be spread out the longer you remain cancer-free. Depending on the type of surgery you had, you will need a mammogram in 6 to 12 months and then once a year thereafter. Women who have had a mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) may no longer need to have a mammogram on that side. Your doctor will tell you how often you will need to have bone density tests and routine pelvic exams. 

A woman who's had cancer in one breast has a higher-than-average risk of developing cancer in the other breast. You should continue to do monthly breast self-exams, checking both the treated area and your other breast. Report any changes to your doctor right away.

It's best not to have blood taken, or an injection given, in the arm on the side of your body where you had breast cancer surgery. If you have to have blood drawn or get medication in this arm, tell the health care professional that you've had breast surgery.

Breast cancer surgery is generally safe, but as with any surgery, there are risks. Possible problems include:

  • Infection
  • A buildup of blood under your skin (hematoma)
  • A buildup of fluid under your skin (seroma)
  • Swelling in the arm (lymphedema)
  • A bad reaction to anesthesia

Many women opt for breast reconstruction right after their cancer is removed. Problems that can stem from that operation include:

  • Poor healing
  • A leak or rupture of your breast implant
  • Scar tissue around your implant

Talk to your doctor about the risks before your surgery. The medical staff will keep an eye out for problems while you're in the hospital. Once you’re home, watch for these symptoms:

Infection. Look for redness or swelling of the incision with pus or foul-smelling drainage. You may have a fever. Usually, antibiotics can treat these infections.

Lymphedema. Look for swelling of the arm or hand on the side of the surgery. This happens to some women after the lymph nodes under the arm are removed. It may go away on its own, but you may need to see a physical or occupational therapist. Treatments include:

  • Draining the fluid
  • Compression bandages to keep the swelling down
  • Skin care
  • Arm exercises

Seroma. You may notice swelling from a buildup of fluid at the site of the surgery. Usually, your body absorbs this fluid. If the swelling doesn’t go down on its own, your doctor may need to use a needle to drain the area.

A small amount of swelling is normal for about a month after surgery. Sometimes, raising your arm on pillows will ease it.

You may have pain and stiffness in your shoulder as you recover. You may also have numbness or unusual sensations in the upper arm or armpit. These side effects usually go away over time.

Other physical problems to tell your doctor about are:

  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Changes in menstrual periods
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness, coughing, or hoarseness
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Digestive problems that seem unusual or that don't go away in 2 or 3 days