As with any surgery, women who undergo breast reconstruction using implants will experience a recovery period. We cannot provide you with specific details regarding your particular recovery process (only your physician can do that). However, we can offer general information regarding recovery after breast reconstruction with implants. This information can help you to more thoroughly prepare for your surgery. It may also help you feel less nervous about life after the procedure.
Immediate Reconstruction (vs. Delayed and Staged Reconstruction)
Immediate implant reconstruction means that the surgeon places the implant at the time of mastectomy. Delayed implant reconstruction is done months or years after mastectomy. Staged reconstruction involves the use of tissue expanders, which are used to gradually increase the volume of the space where implants will eventually be placed.
This article covers what to expect after immediate reconstruction. We will be publishing articles about what to expect for delayed and staged reconstruction in the future. For now, you can read more about those options here.
When women undergo immediate implant reconstruction, they may be kept at the hospital for anywhere from two to five days. During this time, nurses and physicians will closely monitor the healing process to ensure that any complications are caught and remedied early on.
Recovering in the Hospital
Upon waking up from the procedure, most women feel groggy and weak. Due to the extensive bandaging, women may have to wear a specially designed bra to hold the bandages in place. Depending on your individual situation, you may also have drainage tubes in place around the reconstructed breast. This helps collect and drain fluid from around the surgery site and reduces the risk of complications.
During the first day at the hospital, it may be difficult to get up and walk on your own. Fortunately, mobility usually increases by the second day, and at that time most women can start walking around and eating regular food.
The more you move around and eat, the sooner you will be able to go home. Make sure you are well-hydrated throughout your stay at the hospital, and wear comfortable clothing. Button-down shirts or zipper-front shirts are best, because many women struggle to pull tops over their heads after their surgery.
Before you leave, your physician will prescribe both medication to help with pain, and any antibiotics that you may need. You will receive information about caring for the drains, if you have them, along with details about suggested activity level, clothing, and other aspects of recovering at home. It is important that you follow the information provided by your physician to ensure a safe and complete recovery.
Recovering at Home
Once at home, the details of recovery often vary even further between women. However, it typically takes six to eight weeks for recovery from breast implant reconstruction. You should be able to go back to work and resume some normal activities within four weeks. In order to drive, you must be off prescription pain medication, have a safe range of motion in your arms, and have had all drains removed. This normally takes around three weeks for most women, but it may be shorter or longer depending on your individual situation.
Sensations and Pain
As mentioned briefly in the previous section, you will most likely experience some pain immediately following the procedure. In addition to pain, you may find that the incision site is itchy or that it stings. This is common for people who have undergone surgery, but it’s important that you do not scratch at the surgical site. Scratching may tear the stitches or open the wound, which increases the likelihood of an infection.
In addition to pain and itching, there are several other common sensations that you may experience. Your chest and the underside of your arm on the side of the surgery may feel numb for a time. Although this is a frequent occurrence for women after having breast reconstruction with implants, make sure you tell your physician about it–especially if the numbness continues for a long time. Finally, you may feel like there is water running down your arm or that your arm is warmer than the rest of your body. All of these are normal feelings that reconstruction patients experience.
Your reconstructed breast may have no feeling for some time after the procedure. Breast reconstruction does not restore normal feeling, but over the course of several years, some feeling may return.
You may have several limitations relating to your activities following surgery. Again, these will vary. Typically, women who have had drains placed around the breast cannot be submerged in water or take a bath until at least two days after the drains have been removed. For women without drains, baths are still a risk until the incision is fully healed, but showers are normally fine after 48 hours have passed. While some women may not have the energy to shower for the entire first week, others may feel up to showering within just a few days.
Once you’re able to, shower every day to keep the incision site clean. If you plan on shaving under your arm, use an electric razor, though it may be best to simply wait until further healing. This prevents you from accidentally cutting yourself. After each shower, carefully check your incision and drain sites for any increased swelling, new drainage, or new redness.
It is also best to reduce any reaching or stretching of the arms during these early recovery times, especially if you have the drains in. Once the drains have been removed, it is good to perform regular exercises to strengthen your arm muscles and slowly regain your original range of motion. However, avoid strenuous sports, some sexual activities, and overhead lifting for at least four to six weeks. Your physician will provide you with a few exercises that are suitable for your recovery period, along with more accurate recommendations on how long certain movements should be avoided.
While wearing a zip-up or button-up shirt home from the hospital is normally best, there are often relatively few restrictions when it comes to clothing after reconstruction with implants. You may prefer wearing only button and zip-up tops for a while depending on your ability to raise your arms over your head, but they are not necessarily a requirement.
The article of clothing that is most impacted by the surgery is your bra. Many surgeons suggest that women wear special supportive bras without underwire following their surgery. These types of bras are often found in many department stores. Choosing a bra that hooks in the front is also beneficial because it makes it easier to remove and put on your bra every day. A camisole or other top with a built-in bra may also work just fine. Most built-in bra tops do not have underwire, but women with larger breasts may find that they also do not provide the support they may need.
There is no set time for when you can start wearing underwire bras again, so make sure to discuss it with your surgeon. However, you may find that even if you can start safely wearing an underwire bra, you just prefer not to. For many women, underwire bras press uncomfortably on their surgery scars or irritate the skin more.
However, thankfully, in recent years several companies have specifically worked to develop lingerie for women who’ve undergone breast surgery. Marla Hope and AnaOno are two companies that specifically focus on creating such products. Other companies such as Amoena and Anita also offer several post-surgical and mastectomy bra and camisole products for women.
Immediately following your surgery, you will have stitches. Most surgeons use stitches that are absorbable, so you may not have to return to your physician to have them removed. There will be swelling and bruising around the reconstructed breast as well. Over time, swelling and bruising will diminish, but it can take up to eight weeks for them to fully go away.
The most permanent change in appearance, aside from a wholly new breast, will be scarring on the breast or around the surgical site. Your scars may be fairly prominent at first. Fortunately, the scars do normally fade to some degree after one to two years.
Emotional Recovery after Breast Reconstruction
There are a number of emotions that you may experience following your implant reconstruction surgery. Many women struggle with accepting the reconstructed breast as their own and accepting that their own natural breast is gone.
It will take time for you to accept these emotions, but you still do not have to go through the process alone. Speaking to a mental health professional and with other women who have had breast reconstruction is extremely helpful. If you want to learn more about getting emotional support for any stage during your breast cancer and breast reconstruction journey, feel free to read our posts about support groups and counselors and psychologists.