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Breast Cancer Surgery

Concerns or complications

What’s common after surgery?

  • Bruising on the skin of the breast and armpit without swelling.
  • A bit of redness right around your drain site.
  • A closed incision with a bit of drainage.
  • A stitch that you can see or feel at the end(s) of your incision.
  • Firmness without bruising where you had a lump removed (lumpectomy).

Learn about emergencies and when to get help​.

Pain or discomfort

You’ll probably feel some pain after your surgery. This is normal.

Take your pain medicine as directed. If the medicine is upsetting your stomach, stop taking it and call your surgeon’s office.​

You may have numbness, burning, or tingling in your chest, shoulder, or arm. These feelings usually get better or go away over time.

If you’re concerned about pain that doesn’t stop or anything else you feel, talk to your doctor or nurse.

Seroma (fluid build up)

A seroma is swelling caused by fluid building up in or around your incision area (in the breast or armpit). This is normal and may feel like a lump a few days after surgery. The lump can grow to feel like a golf ball or egg. In most cases, the fluid will absorb over time.

If the lump is large enough and it’s causing you pain, your surgeon may drain the fluid with a small needle.

Axillary web syndrome (cording)

In the weeks after surgery you may have pain that feels like a tight cord running from your armpit down your arm or wrist, or down your trunk (torso). You may also notice it looks like you have a cord under the skin. It might be hard to reach for objects above you, lift your arm, or straighten your elbow. This is called axillary web syndrome (PDF) or cording.

Cording usually goes away on its own over time. Doing stretching exercises can help prevent it. You may also want to ask for a referral to a physiotherapist.

Swelling (lymphedema)

Lymphedema is swelling of the hand, arm or trunk (torso) that can happen any time after lymph node surgery, even many years later. The swelling is due to a build up of lymph fluid. It can be mild (such as when your watch feels a bit tight) or more severe. Lymphedema may be temporary or permanent and needs treatment to be managed.

Lymphedema is more common after an axillary lymph node dissection because more nodes are taken, and less common after a sentinel lymph node biopsy.

If you have had a sentinel lymph node biopsy you may not need to take any special precautions.

If you have had an axillary lymph node dissection, follow these steps to help lower your risk of lymphedema:

  • When your incisions are healed, use a moisturizer daily. When it's possible, try not to injure the skin on your surgical side(s). Be careful not to cut, burn, sunburn, or get insect bites by wearing clothing and gloves for protection.
  • Watch for signs of infection in your hand or arm. Infection can lead to lymphedema in people with a risk for developing it. If you notice skin redness, swelling, or heat in your hand or arm on your surgical side(s), contact your healthcare provider right away.
  • Protect your arm. Try to avoid having blood drawn or your blood pressure checked on the side of your surgery. If you’ve had a bilateral axillary lymph node dissection, try to switch between arms for blood work and blood pressure monitoring.
  • Do not wear tight-fitting jewelry or clothing on the hand or arm of your surgical side(s).
  • Try not to carry a heavy bag on the side of your surgery. If you need to carry something heavier, try using a bag or basket with wheels instead.
  • Do your follow-up exercises. These exercises are to help you start moving your upper body more easily. They can also help lower the risk for lymphedema.
  • Stay at a healthy body weight. If you’re overweight, you have a higher chance of lymphedema as the body needs to work harder to get rid of fluid in the tissue.
  • Try to be active and work up slowly. Exercise lowers the risk of lymphedema, but doing too much exercise too quickly may also cause lymphedema. Exercise carefully by doing a little more exercise every day. Take lots of rest breaks and pay attention to how your body feels. Think “start low, go slow.”

Review the signs of lymphedema so you can get treatment right away. The affected area may:

  • have swelling, which could cause your clothing or jewellery to become tight
  • feel heavy and/or numb, or tingle
  • be more difficult to move
  • have pain and/or discomfort
  • have an increased risk of infection

If you have any type of swelling in your arm, hand, trunk (torso) or breast, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to a physiotherapist.

Lymphedema is easier to manage if you get help early.

The “do nots” after surgery (for 4 to 6 weeks)

  • No lifting anything over 10 pounds (lbs). It increases blood pressure and might cause your incision to open
  • No vacuuming
  • No driving while on pain medications
  • Ask about going back to work
  • No swimming or hot tubs (do not put your incision under the water)​

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