Healing Inside and Out: A Guide to Mastectomy Recovery and Emotional Support

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I had a double mastectomy last week. I opted to “go flat” instead of breast reconstruction. I didn’t like what I heard from the plastic surgeon about the difficulty of mastectomy recovery with breast reconstruction – I feel personally that emotional recovery is going to be hard enough. Although this experience varies from person to person, recovery takes a toll both physically and emotionally on you. How do you navigate your relationship with your new body when you’re literally just trying to survive—and when your new scars and shape is a constant physical reminder of your cancer battle?

  1. Be kind to yourself:

Remember that your body has been through a traumatic event, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed with emotions after a mastectomy. Take the time to acknowledge your feelings and be gentle with yourself as you adjust to your new normal. Your incisions and scars depend on the type of mastectomy surgery, but you will probably feel different in the way you view your body. I chose to be kind to myself by leaning on my wife during my cancer treatment… she cleaned out my bra drawer the day after my surgery. It sounds strange but that was an emotional experience for me. Same with removing my bandages for the first time at a follow-up appointment with a home nurse. I looked down at my incisions and it was a shock of “Wow, they’re really gone.” What I know the most is that it would be so hard to recover from a mastectomy without support, and I want to highly encourage those who may not have physical and emotional care to seek it out – your healthcare professional is able to give resources, and the American Cancer Society is a fantastic organization that can provide answers to concerns you may have about your mastectomy.

2. Seek support:

Consider talking to a therapist or joining a support group for breast cancer survivors. Surrounding yourself with people on a breast cancer care team or otherwise who understand what you’re going through can help you feel less alone. It’s important to talk about how you’re feeling throughout all of this. I have a co-worker who has been supporting me with insight from her own breast cancer journey and it’s been very helpful to chat as I feel many emotions about all of this. Recovering from surgery is tough enough – you’ll feel sore, chest tightness, deal with drains, possible fluid buildup, pain medication, even damn constipation from the narcotic side effects – as the breast cancer patient, and cancer treatment in general impacts your breast care team and loved ones as well. Be sure that your loved ones are seeking emotional support too. They will form some emotional scar tissue too over this as well.

3. Focus on what your body can do:

Instead of dwelling on what your body can’t do after cancer, focus on what it can do. Avoid strenuous activity, celebrate small accomplishments, and be proud of what your body has overcome. Don’t return to work of resume housework or any activities that will strain your healing body until your breast cancer team says you are ready. Ask your doctor or nurse about when they think you will start to feel up to resuming your regular schedule and daily activities. It’s common to feel guilty if you’re missing work and not participating in normal activities, but you must admit to yourself that you will need some help; a double mastectomy is no joke. It is a physical trauma with pain or discomfort, so don’t do more that you’re able to do for now. 

4. Take care of yourself:

Practicing self-care can help you feel more confident and comfortable in your new body. This can include things like eating well, exercising, and engaging in activities you enjoy. 

Self-care tips that can help you boost mental and emotional well-being: 

    • Take regular breaks from screen time and engage in non-digital activities.- Set realistic goals for work or personal projects and reward yourself for achieving them.- Get enough sleep and establish a consistent sleep routine.
    • Practice mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and don’t forget your arm exercises. this will help with your range of motion, but also can be combined with deep breathing as a mindfulness exercise. 
    • Connect with friends and family, or seek support from online communities.
    • Seek professional help if you’re struggling with mental health issues. Many mental health professionals now offer virtual consultations.


5. Embrace your scars:

Depending on your individual journey of breast cancer treatment, you will feel emotions after a mastectomy – maybe you feel liberated that the cancer is finally removed from your body; maybe you’re grieving a loss of a part of your body, your physical strength, or even your “womanhood”, as breasts define for some women. I think I’m feeling a bit of all of this. But, in my quest to stay positive, I’m going to embrace my scars to seek acceptance of the rest of my emotional changes. Your scars are a reminder of the strength and resilience you have shown throughout your cancer battle. Try to view them as a badge of honor, rather than something to be ashamed of.