Whether your mastectomy is preventative or a response to a positive cancer diagnosis, the honest truth is that this surgery is incredibly hard on most women. Those of us who have watched our mothers, aunts, sisters, etc. undergo a mastectomy already have some idea of how physically and emotionally draining this particular surgery can be. However, a second-hand experience is ultimately removed from the actual experience.
In preparation for your procedure, Dr. Darlene M. Miltenburg at Breast Health Institute Houston will have already spoken to you about post-surgical care. What she may not have spoken to you about yet is the mental and emotional toll that this procedure often takes on women, so let us take a few minutes to discuss your physical and your mental health post-mastectomy.
The Physical Toll
This topic receives a lot of coverage, mostly because many patients appear to initially assume that their surgeon is overly cautious. Erika Archer Lewis attacks this concept in no uncertain terms. Her article, “5 Tips from my Mastectomy Experience,” describes the recovery period as a rollercoaster. She notes that at about three weeks after surgery, she was feeling well and decided to ignore her surgeon’s warning to take a full six weeks off. Hours later, her back and shoulders went into spasm, completely incapacitating her. It’s a lesson that she urges all other women to learn from.
Whether or not you start to feel better, it is imperative that you listen to your surgeon’s specific instructions. These may vary depending on the type of mastectomy you are receiving or the amount of tissue being removed, but their expertise should be respected if you want to give your body the best chance at healing.
Yes, this will generally mean that you will need to call in every favor you’ve amassed. You will need to rely on your partner, your family, and your friends for everything from child care to cleaning to meal preparation, and there is nothing wrong with that. At this moment in your life, the only thing you should be focusing on is healing.
The Mental Toll
Unfortunately, focusing on healing can be difficult after having a mastectomy. So much has changed. You are suddenly utterly reliant on other people. Your body is unrecognizable. In a sense, you’re experiencing grief. Grief over a part of your body that you assumed would always be there.
Sure, from the outside, it is easy to say, “they’re just breasts,” but, in reality, your self-image has been partially erased. You can’t even hug someone without pain. My own mother cried for months every time one of her young children tried to lay their heads on her chest. There was no tissue, nothing to cushion the weight of her child against her ribs.
Experiencing grief is normal. You have to give yourself the space to process your loss before you move on. Fortunately, there are things you can do to give yourself a boost and maintain a sense of normalcy after your surgery.
First, if you’re in a romantic relationship, then you need to discuss boundaries with your partner post-surgery. Given that you will be healing for up to two months, it is easy to lose that easy, sexual intimacy you had before, especially if you’re feeling self-conscious. Don’t be afraid to talk to your partner about how you’re feeling. Without open communication, you may both end up feeling unwanted, leading to a serious rift in your relationship.
Second, once your recovery period is over, go shopping. Live Better with Cancer has a great blog devoted to what you should wear during your recovery period. But afterwards, it is going to be essential to pick out a few items that you feel attractive in. Picking out delicate lingerie is a great start. Aim for items that will cover your scars and allow you to feel beautiful again. Silky camisoles usually do the trick. It sounds vain, but it is vital to rebuild your self-image after surgery.
Help is Available
Positive sexuality and self-image are important to a lot of people. Still, the ultimate goal after a mastectomy is to make sure that your relationships stay healthy and you don’t lose any feeling of self-worth. If you’re struggling to cope or are experiencing feelings of worthlessness, then please contact your surgeon. Their offices will be able to connect you with local support groups and therapists.
If you begin to experience suicide ideation, then please call the National Suicide Prevention Line. Although relatively few breast cancer patients commit suicide, they are 37% more likely to do so than the general population. Any symptoms of depression should be taken seriously, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.