What’s it like to have a mastectomy? (or “So, do you still have boobs?”)

Kim Henderson
Reading time: 8 minutes

The, “So, do you still have boobs?”, question remains to this day the most awkward question I was asked during my breast cancer experience. The fellow who asked it was a casual acquaintance of my husband, a virtual stranger to me. At the time, I was mortified that he had the nerve to ask me such a preposterous question. I was still recovering from my surgery and was about to begin chemotherapy. I thought he was the most dunderheaded person in the world to even think to ask me such an insensitive and personal question. But, as it turns out, he was pretty much just asking a question out loud that many others were thinking.

Two melons placed beside each other
Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Despite what many people mistakenly believe, a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction is not a ‘boob job’. Far from it. Breast augmentation— sometimes referred to as a ‘boob job’—is a cosmetic procedure that involves the use of breast implants to increase the size of the breasts. Implants made of silicone or saline-filled bags are inserted under the muscle or breast to create larger breasts. This procedure is used to regain breast volume lost after weight reduction or pregnancy, improve breast size, or gain a more desirable breast shape.

On the other hand, a mastectomy is usually a breast cancer operation where all the breast tissue is removed. A mastectomy can also involve removal of the breast skin, or, as in my case, a ‘skin-sparing mastectomy’, where the breast tissue is scraped away from the skin to allow enough skin remaining so the breast surgeon can perform a breast reconstruction, inserting implants under the muscle and skin to recreate a breast shape.

In the beginning, when I was making my decision about which surgical option to take for breast cancer, I was desperate to find as much information as I could from real women who had been through the various breast cancer operations available—usually either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy.

In the days leading up to my mastectomy, I searched the Internet for photos, real-life accounts and memoirs from ordinary, everyday women who had been through this devastating, extraordinary experience.

I was very fortunate to be able to personally talk to two women who had each had a mastectomy. One was a friend and the other a complete stranger. Both of these beautiful women (I like to refer to them as Guardian Angels who appeared when I needed them most) very kindly spent hours on the phone with me, patiently answering my questions. It was so helpful to talk to them and gain their insight about the physical and emotional impact of having a mastectomy.

After my mastectomy and breast reconstruction, I was unable to lift my arms above my head for about eight weeks. This was partly because of pain and partly because I wanted to give the implants the best chance to settle into place.

I’m not going to lie—the pain immediately after my mastectomy was fierce. My suggestion: take whatever pain medications they offer you. Don’t be a saint and try to cope without the meds. Trust me, you’ll be a lot more comfortable.

Pre-prepare to try and make your stay in hospital as comfortable as possible. You may find it helpful to read my suggested packing list below.

Preparing for your mastectomy

Reach out. Talk to others who have been through a mastectomy, either in person or online. Most women who have been through this experience are only too happy to help prepare you for what to expect.

Update your playlist with your favourite relaxing or upbeat music or motivational audiobooks. Get a set of headphones so you can listen in hospital when you can’t sleep. Listening to calming music can help take your mind off being in pain.

Spring clean your home. Arrange your kitchen so cups, utensils and dishes are easily accessible so you don’t have to stretch. Deep clean your bedroom and make the bed with fresh linen. Arrange your bedside table so you can easily access your books, pens, notebooks, phone, phone charger, clock and the lamp. Sleeping on your side will be difficult during recovery, and sleeping on your stomach an impossibility. For a tummy sleeper like me, this was frustrating, but I found that by setting up a few extra soft pillows to support me I was able to learn to sleep on my back.

The hospital may provide you with small pillows that have a strap to place over your shoulder so the pillow part can protect the surgery site. Micro-bead travel pillows work well too.

You will find it difficult to cook or clean after your mastectomy for approximately four to eight weeks. If you have a partner or kids, make sure they understand that you won’t be very active after surgery for a while and they will need to take over cleaning the house, grocery shopping and cooking. Make lists, so they know what needs to be done to ensure the smooth running of the household. If you can afford it, organise a cleaner to clean your home for the first few weeks after surgery.

Pre-prepare meals and freeze them so they will be available following your surgery. Perhaps organise a home delivery meal service, or arrange for a group of friends or family to take turns cooking for a few weeks.

Have a facial, get a manicure and pedicure and even get a massage. This is a great time to pamper yourself to help release pre-surgery anxiety and calm your nerves.

Hit the gym, go swimming or walking. Your usual exercise routine will be restricted after surgery, so it’s a great idea to get in a little exercise now. Working up a sweat is an excellent way to combat the jitters and help you relax.

Take photos of your breasts prior to surgery. You may want to look at the pictures in the future (and the images may also be helpful for your surgeon if you are having reconstructive surgery). Try on all your bras. Give yourself time to ceremoniously farewell your breasts. This is part of the grieving process and also part of the healing process.

Suggested packing list

  • Post-surgery bra (front closure)
  • Soft cotton camisole or tank top with a shelf-bra (I found these super-useful as I could step into it to put it on and pull it up over my body.)
  • Loose Clothing: button-up shirts, track pants or loose elasticised pants, close zip hoodie, comfy underwear, button-down nightie or PJ’s, dressing gown, warm socks, slippers, slip-on shoes. Try not to pack clothing that you have to put over your head. It’s going to be difficult to stretch or raise your arms above your head. I purchased button up PJ’s and button up shirts in a size or two bigger than I usually am so they would be more comfortable.
  • Pack your own pillow to use in hospital, and to protect your chest from the seat belt on your trip home
  • Lip balm
  • Hairbrush and elastics - I was unable to brush my hair, but my sister-in-law came up and brushed and plaited my hair, and I was so grateful for this after a few days of being unable to wash and brush it.
  • Headband to keep hair out of your face
  • Face wipes
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Soap or body wash
  • Moisturiser
  • Scented hand cream
  • Refillable water bottle
  • Books – if you have a tablet, download some ebooks, audiobooks or podcasts to listen to
  • Phone and tablet charger

Hopefully, you will have a loved one to support you in hospital. Make sure you’ve packed them these helpful items:

  • Snacks
  • Water bottle
  • Cash for coffee shop and vending machines
  • Phone charger
  • Interesting book
  • Notebook for writing down information during recovery and doctors details
  • Contact information for family and friends. (I asked my husband to log into my Facebook account to keep everyone updated.)

Mastectomy recovery

Listen to your body. When you need to rest, turn your phone off and put a note on the front door telling visitors to come back later.

Sleep. Your body is exerting a lot of energy to heal and the more you sleep, the faster your body will heal. Feeling tired is your body’s way of telling you to have a nap.

Ask for help when you need it.

Say no if you don’t feel up to visitors.

Ask people to stay away if they are sick. Your immunity will be lowered while your body is healing, and the last thing you need right now is a cold, flu or stomach bug.

Friends will ask what they can do—don’t say ‘I’m fine’, say ‘Thank you, I would love you to…’ (insert what you need: vacuum and mop the floors, clean the bathroom, iron a basketful of washing, deliver a meal). People want to help you, and even if you’re not used to it, use this time to accept the help you need. Not straining yourself will help you heal faster and you can always pay-it-forward to others in the future.

The more you focus on yourself and what you need, the quicker you will recover.

Seek professional mental-health support if you need it. Your mental health can sometimes be neglected, but this is a serious and traumatic event. It’s ok to seek help in processing your thoughts and feelings. Talk to your doctor, surgeon or breast care nurse for a referral or recommendation. There are also many breast cancer support groups, online or local. Your medical team will be able to refer you to your local groups.

I hope that I have given you a bit of an insight into the experience of having a mastectomy.

Peace. Unity. Love.