Side Effects of Breast Cancer Surgery

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Less invasive diagnostic and treatment techniques, such as sentinel lymph node biopsy and lumpectomy, together with innovative approaches to managing pain, mean that more people are finding relief from the side effects of breast cancer surgery. In fact, many large hospitals and cancer facilities now have pain clinics devoted exclusively to helping people with cancer feel better.

While many of surgery’s side effects are short-lived, others may linger longer or even be permanent. The good news is that physical therapy, cosmetic surgery, and other treatment approaches can help you overcome many of the long-term side effects of breast cancer surgery.

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Common side effects of breast cancer surgery

Soreness, tenderness, and pain at the incision site. Depending on the amount of discomfort you’re experiencing, you’ll want to discuss the most appropriate method of pain control with your healthcare provider.

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Weight shift in the body. Removal of a breast can cause a woman’s weight to shift and be out of balance, especially if she has large breasts. This can cause discomfort and tension in the neck, back, and shoulders. A physical therapist can help you adjust to the changes through building and retraining some of the muscles and working on your posture. Reconstructive surgery can also help restore physical balance.

Nerve damage. Because nerves may be injured or cut during surgery, you may experience numbness and tingling in the chest, underarm, shoulder, and arm. These feelings usually go away within a few months, but some numbness may be permanent.

Lymphedema. Removal of lymph nodes under the arm can slow the flow of lymph fluid and cause long-lasting, even permanent, swelling on the side of the body where you had surgery, especially in the arm and hand. This swelling not only has a physical and cosmetic impact, but can lead to infection and other serious complications.

Cosmetic changes. Depending on the extent of your surgery, you may experience significant changes to your chest area. If you are considering reconstructive surgery, you’ll want to consult with a plastic surgeon before your surgery. In some cases, you may be able to have the reconstruction at the same time you have breast tissue removed. If you will be using prosthetics, such as bra inserts or breast forms, discuss your needs with a cosmetic rehabilitation specialist before surgery. Learn more about breast reconstruction and prosthetics.

Preparing for breast cancer surgery

Knowing what to expect before, during, and after surgery can significantly lower the anxiety you may feel about the procedure. Here are some other steps you can take to help ensure your surgery goes smoothly:

Know What to Expect

Get an overview of cancer surgery in Your Guide to Cancer Care.

  • Take care of yourself. Plenty of rest and a healthy diet can help prepare your body for surgery.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking can make it harder for your body to heal and can cause lung complications after surgery.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions. Ask your care team how to look after incisions and when to take medication, and follow their instructions carefully. Find out what side effects after surgery are normal and which may be signs of a complication.
  • Follow instructions for getting back on your feet. Find out when and how to start rehabilitation and when to schedule follow-up appointments.
  • Know your limits. Follow your doctor’s guidelines regarding physical activity and returning to work after surgery. Don’t push yourself during recovery.

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