Single mastectomy symbol
Breast Cancer,  Breast Cancer Surgery

Pro Tips for Mastectomy Surgery Recovery

My mastectomy surgery was my first ever and I had no idea what to expect. Here are some pro tips that worked for me and that I’d like to pass along. 

The first few days after a mastectomy are uncomfortable. You are healing from the surgery and the effects of anesthesia and you have drains on either side of your ribcage. That said, I was up and dressed the very next day and did my makeup. I think I’m too stubborn to allow even a major surgery to take me down. 

Managing Surgical Drains

Drains are, well a pain. They are long tubes with bulbs at the end of them that allow the fluid to drain from your chest cavity. They are typically in place for 10 days, but it can be longer. I was lucky and had my removed at 6 days post-surgery. To keep the drains from pulling (it is an open wound and uncomfortable and the thought of tugging on one gave me the willies)  I used a surgical cami with pockets to keep my drains tucked into my side. Some women use a drain hoster (I bought one but it didn’t arrive in time) and others will turn a robe inside out and put the drains in their pockets. My surgeon forbade a bath while the drains were in, but I was allowed to take a shower after 48 hours, and I used a conference lanyard to clip up the drains so they didn’t pull. You also will need to “milk” the drains regularly to keep the fluid moving and to break up any clots that form in the tube. 


Because of the drain situation, I opted to sleep in a recliner until the drains were removed. I rationalized that gravity would have an easier time doing its work and I also didn’t have to worry about my partner rolling over and tugging on a drain. It wasn’t the most comfortable sleeping arrangement, but it was a short-term situation. Some women swear by a big mastectomy pillow in bed. 

What to Wear

With a double mastectomy and sentinel nodes removed on both sides, you have what we like to call T-Rex arms for a few days. Your surgeon won’t want you lifting anything over ten pounds, extending over your head and so forth, and frankly it would be uncomfortable to do so. You also won’t be able to pull on anything over your head without discomfort. I had my surgery in the summer and bought a few button-up linen shirts from Zara that were pretty, cool and functional. I even wore one the day of my surgery, thinking ahead to getting re-dressed and heading home. Once the bandages came off and the drains out, I was supposed to wear a tight sports bra for two weeks. I found a cool one from Athleta I liked and wear to this day. It was tight and flattering for my newly flat body. 


Stay on top of your body’s needs. After my surgery, I was back to my regular 5K+ power walks ten days later. But everybody is unique: what is important is to listen to your own and adjust accordingly. You may need rest, but a gentle walk can also refresh and renew. Remember that your body has been through a lot, that healing happens inside as well as out and so you need to consult with your surgeon before doing anything too strenuous. The week after surgery your body is also dealing with the after-effects of the anesthesia so you may move a bit slower than you would like. I had a good friend who was an amazing companion and babysitter. We hung out, watched Emily in Paris together, and made sure to get lots of rest, water and nourishing food. 

After the surgery, looking into the mirror is going to be different, whether you have a lumpectomy, single or double mastectomy, or immediate reconstruction. So give yourself time and patience. When it was time, I reimagined my closet for my new body. Trying on things like spaghetti straps and backless dresses, items I couldn’t wear previously gave me a new joy. I also discovered that most of my existing wardrobe worked just fine! Digging into my closet this fashion maven found excitement when I might have felt loss. If you’d like to know more about my story from cancer diagnosis, to mastectomy to flat you can read about it in my book Flat Please.

In my journey, I also found value in resources and information such as Mastectomy as a Day Surgery and the calming wisdom of Angel Wisdom. Perhaps you might find them helpful too.

NOTE: Always consult with your medical team. This is a personal account and not medical advice.

Ellyn Winters-Robinson is a breast cancer survivor, entrepreneur, author, in-demand speaker, women’s health advocate, professional communicator and a globally recognized health rebel. Ellyn's best-selling book "Flat Please Hold the Shame," is a girlfriend’s companion guide for those on the breast cancer journey. She is also the co-creator of, the world’s first conversational AI companion for those on the breast cancer journey. With Dense Breasts Canada and award-winning photographer Hilary Gauld, Ellyn also co-produced I WANT YOU TO KNOW, a celebrated photo essay showing the diverse faces and stories of 31 individuals on the breast cancer journey. Ellyn’s story and have been featured in People Magazine, Chatelaine Magazine, the Globe and Mail, CTV National News and Your Morning, and Fast Company.

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