Mastectomy: What to Expect

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Are you or someone you know battling breast cancer? Most people know at least one person who has fought the ugly disease. If you are survivor, like millions of others, you know what it takes. You may have been through radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, and hormonal therapy. You are likely to have had surgery that removed one or both breasts to eliminate cancer cells, and ultimately save your life. Thousands of women and men face breast cancer every year in the United States. Luckily, doctors and scientists have done tireless research to combat breast cancer. Just in the past decade, they have come very far in the treatment options that are available, surgeries that are successful, and more people going into remission. Hope has never been higher. But, for so many people, the price of saving their lives means removing their breasts, and that is the ugly reality of breast cancer.

What is a Mastectomy?

Essentially, it is the removal of the breasts, whether it be partial (one breast) or double (both breasts). There are several kinds of surgeries that your doctor will talk to you about. The options that are available to you depends on the stage of cancer, where it is located, and the size of the tumor(s). Along with those variables, it also depends on the characteristics of the cancer. Unfortunately, there are tumors found in women's breasts that doctors deem inoperable. This means the cancer has spread too far, and other treatment needs to be administered. There is the bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, which is the preventative surgery performed to remove the breasts in a woman who is certain to develop cancer in them. This is a rare surgery that doctors obviously do not do often because other treatments without surgery are their preferred option. They only perform surgeries when it is absolutely necessary. You may have a partial mastectomy, which removes just one or a part of the breast. You also may elect to save the skin and nipple of the breast, so synthetic material may be placed during reconstruction following the removal of the cancer. A double mastectomy is the removal of both breasts. There are plenty of options for each case, as they are very different. So, talking to your doctor is the only way to fully understand what to expect and which option is best for you and your health.

What Can I Expect?

A mastectomy is an invasive surgery. It depends on the kind of mastectomy you receive. You can expect healing to take several weeks. A partial mastectomy is a bit less invasive, and you heal in just a few weeks. You may even possibly elect to have immediate reconstruction following the mastectomy, so that you do not need multiple surgeries. If your cancer is more aggressive, following your mastectomy, you will likely continue or start radiation and hormonal therapy, as well as chemotherapy. The cancer cells spread over time. Tumors grow. There are different kinds of tumors, there are ones that are large and grow slowly, and small ones that are aggressive and grow very rapidly. There are also ones in the middle that are fair in size and grow significantly, as well. Plus, you need to do physical therapy at home, which includes arm exercises to make sure you are eventually able to lift your arms as necessary to perform daily tasks. If you do not do these exercises, then you expect to have limited motion with your arms as the days go by. You will likely have a full team of oncologists, oncology nurses, nutritionists, and other cancer professionals who guide you through the process. These people save so many lives and help millions of people through the worst time in their lives. You can expect to have a lot of support, comfort, and care from your family, friends, and healthcare providers. You and your doctor devise a plan to beat and survive the breast cancer. It is very helpful to have as much emotional and physical support as possible. There is probably a breast cancer support group in your area. As your doctor about it. Also, the Internet is full of personal stories about other women who have had a mastectomy. Their stories help you to cope and understand what all of you are going through. For example, famous actresses Christina Applegate and Angelina Jolie have shared their stories about their mastectomies.

What Will It Look Like?

A mastectomy looks like a man's chest without a nipple. There is usually a long scar that goes across where the breast was. Yes, it is a painful procedure. You obviously miss your breasts, which feels alien to you. There is bruising, tenderness, and soreness in the weeks afterwards. If you feel comfortable doing so, do a search on your favorite search engine, and look up images of women who have gone through this process. Mastectomies are a badge of courage. There are also options that women elect to do after their mastectomies. If their skin cannot be saved, they elect to have tattoos that look like a 3D rendering of a nipple and areola. There are thousands of women who also get large, bright, and beautiful tattoos done across their entire chest. To them, it takes the focus away from not having breasts and signifies the artistry of a tattooed warrior. The reconstruction process has come a long way recently. Many women choose to reconstruct their breasts and get implants. Women who choose to not have reconstructive surgery have options, as well. There are bras made with implants. A mastectomy is a traumatic surgery. One that causes a dramatic impact, both emotionally and physically. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek support. Do you regularly get a mammogram? Early detection of breast cancer means an excellent chance of survival.