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Staying Healthy: Post Mastectomy Care for Older Women

Studies have shown that half of all breast cancer cases occur in women between the ages of sixty-five and eighty. These cancers tend to be more aggressive forms which make them even more difficult to treat. Unfortunately, older women are not well represented in breast cancer studies. In addition, their doctors tend to overlook the risks and ask fewer questions about risk factors. It is important to be proactive with your doctor.

Two options for dealing with breast cancer are a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. A mastectomy will remove most or all of the breast (and possibly surrounding muscles), while a lumpectomy will remove only the tumor while leaving a cancer cell free margin. Studies show that the survival rate is the same for both options.

Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Where To Go From Here & What to Expect Afterwards

You’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and a mastectomy has been performed. Now what? Post mastectomy care for older women begins at Day One and continues for a lifetime. When some of the fear of diagnosis has passed and you are able to focus on activities other than treatments and appointments, it is time to step back into your daily life and keep yourself healthy.

Having a mastectomy is both a physical and emotional journey that only beings with the surgery. For older women, the post mastectomy care and support they receive afterwards is of utmost importance. Knowing what to expect after the surgery can help prepare the patient when deal with the new reality.

After effects can include:

  • During the healing process, there can be a buildup of blood and fluid at the surgical site. A drain will be placed in the underarm / breast area to remove the fluid. The caretaker may need to measure the collected fluid, empty the drain, and be on hand to report to the doctor if there are any issues such as blockage,  fluid / blood accumulation or reddening due to infection.
  • Nerves in the underarm / breast area can be damaged during the mastectomy. This damage can cause swelling, numbness, pinching, or a feeling of pulling under the arm.
  • If the axillary lymph nodes have been removed as part of the mastectomy, a chronic condition called lymphedema can occur. This is a swelling of the arm. While a serious condition, it can be prevented.

Follow-Up Mastectomy Care At Home: Physical & Emotional

Once you’re home from the hospital, post mastectomy care becomes critical to recovery. You or a caregiver will need to care for the wound area. Your doctor will have prescribed pain medication. This prescription should be filled right away, so it will be available when needed.

The dressing that covers the incision may or may not need to be changed. Your doctor may want to wait until you go back to the office before receiving a new dressing. Be sure to ask, before you leave the hospital, if your doctor wants you to change your own bandage.

If the surgical drain has not been removed before you leave the hospital, you will need to drain it at home. Drains are sometimes left in for up to two weeks after going home. The drain – which is detachable – will need to be emptied of fluid several times per day.

Exercise will be an important component of getting well again. Your doctor will prescribe a set of arm exercises that you should do at home. Typically, it is best to do them in the morning. There can be phantom pain even months after a mastectomy. If you experience this, do let your primary care provider know.

As mentioned, a mastectomy and mastectomy care is also an emotional journey. Social pressures on women don’t completely disappear as one ages. Losing a breast can affect a women’s body image and cause feelings of insecurity and may lead to depression. Reconstructive surgery is an option for older women depending on their overall health. To deal with this emotional journey, women report positive experiences from reaching out to support groups including women who are going or have gone through the experience of a cancer diagnosis and mastectomy.  Husbands, family and close friends can also be a great source of support. With a little help and time, life can get back to normal.

For more information, please review our Breast Cancer Resources.