Sentinel Node Biopsy for Breast Cancer: What to Expect at Home

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Your Recovery

After a sentinel node biopsy, many women have no side effects. Some women have pain or bruising at the cut (incision) and feel tired. Your breast and underarm area may be slightly swollen. This may last a few days. You should feel close to normal in a few days. The incision the doctor made usually heals in about 2 weeks. The scar usually fades with time.

Some women have a buildup of fluid in the area where the lymph nodes were removed. This is known as seroma. This goes away on its own, or your doctor can drain it.

When you had this test, your doctor injected blue dye or radioactive material (or both) into your breast. The blue dye may give your breast a bluish colour and turn your urine green for about 24 hours. The radioactive material leaves the body on its own in 24 to 48 hours.

A sentinel node biopsy may be done at the same time as other breast surgeries. If this is the case, how you recover will be different.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Follow the steps below to get better as quickly as possible.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Activity

  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • You may drive when you are no longer taking pain medicine and you feel up to it.
  • You can lift things when you feel comfortable doing so.
  • Most women return to work and their normal routines in 2 to 7 days.
  • You may shower 24 to 48 hours after surgery, if your doctor okays it. Pat the incision dry. Do not take a bath for the first 2 weeks, or until your doctor tells you it is okay.
  • Avoid activity or exercise that may put stress on the cut. This includes washing windows, vacuuming, or gardening with the affected arm.

Diet

  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • You may notice that your bowels are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. Take a fibre supplement such as Benefibre or Metamucil every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, take a mild laxative.

Medicines

  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. He or she will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you take blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin, be sure to talk to your doctor. He or she will tell you if and when to start taking those medicines again. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, take an over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.

Incision care

  • If you have strips of tape on the cut (incision) the doctor made, leave the tape on for about 1 week or until it falls off.
  • After you can shower, wash the area daily with warm, soapy water and pat it dry.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have increased swelling in the breast.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits, or groin.
    • A fever.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • You need to change your dressing 3 times because of bleeding.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You have signs of lymphedema.
    • You have a feeling of tightness or swelling in or around your arm.
    • You have pain, weakness that keeps getting worse, or a tingling "pins and needles" feeling.
    • Your arm feels full or heavy.
    • You notice that your hand or wrist is becoming stiff and hard to move.
    • You notice swelling in your fingers.
  • You do not have a bowel movement after taking a laxative.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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