Tips for Recovering From Breast Cancer Surgery

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

How Do I Care for My Drainage Device?

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.

When Can I Get My Incision Wet?

The incision should be kept clean and dry for 1 week after surgery. Because of this, you may need to opt for sponge baths rather than showers. Bathing in a bathtub is OK if the incision area is kept 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.

When and How Do I Change My Bandages?

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 also show you how to change the dressings from your surgery. If possible, it's a good idea to have someone help you change the bandages.

What Should I Take for the Pain?

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


A warm shower may give you 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 it heals, the incision 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.

What Exercises Should I Do After Surgery?

Exercising is important after breast cancer surgery. These daily stretching exercises can help you regain mobility, but talk to your surgeon about when to start them.

  • Arm lifts. While standing or sitting on the edge of a chair, 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.

When Can I Drive After Breast Cancer Surgery?

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

What Follow-Up Exams Will I Have?

Regular follow-up exams 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. From time to time, you'll get a complete physical and an annual mammogram. No other X-rays, scans, or blood tests are routinely necessary.

Should I Do Breast Self-Exams?

A woman who's had cancer in one breast has a higher-than-average risk of developing cancer in her 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.


What Else Do I Need to Know?

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 it's necessary that blood be drawn or drugs given in this arm, tell the health care professional that you have had breast surgery.

When Should I Call the Doctor After Surgery?

Call your doctor if you have swelling in your arm or hand, near the incision, or under your arm. (A small amount of swelling is normal for about 1 month after surgery. Sometimes elevating your arm on pillows will reduce some of the swelling.) You should also let your doctor know if you have a fever over 100.4 F, increased drainage from the incision, pain that's not controlled by your pain medication, or other physical problems such as:

  • 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 2-3 days
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on July 30, 2017



National Cancer Institute.

American Cancer Society: “Surgery for breast cancer.”

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