PHOTO NOTE: This photo is from an incredible summer vacation to Glacier National Park where we hiked and enjoyed the beauty of nature by foot. Pictured from left to right are: My husband, Steven, nephew Jonathan, me and son Owen.
INTRO: Nobody prepared me on what to expect before my mastectomy. I got a few ideas online, but underestimated the physical and emotional impact this major surgery has on you. While recovering, I started to write down things I wish I would have known, which eventually turned into this “top ten’ list to help you prepare for your mastectomy. I’ve given this to other women and they found it helpful. I hope you and your caregivers will as well.
BRITTA’S TOP 10 TIPS – PRE-MASTECTOMY:
1. Get Organized! The American Cancer Society has a nice expanding folder with space to put pathology reports, bills, information etc. Being organized helps your feel more in control of the situation. As part of getting organized, clean your house really well. You won’t want to worry about mopping the floor or vacuuming the house while you are trying to recover. Really hit the bathrooms and door knobs etc. to eliminate as many germs as you can to avoid infection or picking up a cold, flu etc.
2. Ask Questions! You need to ask as many questions about your diagnosis, what is going to happen and know your plan BEFORE any surgery happens. Although it sounds obvious, write your questions down and get them answered during your doctor appointments. Don’t leave until ALL your questions are answered. If you have a recording app on your phone, you might find it helpful to record your pre-op appointment with the doctor and/or nurse. Better yet, bring a friend with you to your appointment; two sets of ears are better than one that is nervous.
3. Shop for loose fitting clothing. Pullovers are simply a pain when you have limited motion so stick with a zipper or snap top. Remember, this is not a beauty contest – be comfortable! Wear your loose fitting sweat suit to the hospital and you’ll have it to wear home. Sweat pants or stretch pants make it easier for you to use the restroom. No jeans or zippered pants or you’ll regret that. Buy a few tops and bottoms to ease home recovery. Slip on shoes are also helpful. Pack extra underwear but you won’t need to wear or pack a bra – you’ll go home wrapped in an ace bandage or a surgical bra provided by the hospital.
4. Order all your medicines with non-child-proof caps. Your arm strength on each side of your mastectomy is limited for a number of weeks, making it difficult to open pill bottles. You WILL want to easily open your meds so plan ahead. Alternatively you can ask someone to put your medicine in an easy to open pill box.
5. Line up rides and people to help you out for the first couple weeks. You won’t be able to drive while you are on pain meds and/or have limited range of motion. People want to help you, so let them drive you to appointments or take you out for coffee if you are up to it. Contact helpers BEFORE your surgery and it will also give you piece of mind.
6. Stock up on easy to prepare and healthy foods (like soup, frozen items etc.) and take up people’s offers to bring your food – it really helps to not have to worry about preparing food. Freeze individual portions of meals in a container that can go from the freezer to the microwave for easy prep.
7. Stay connected. Borrow a laptop if you don’t have one. It is really nice to stay in touch with friends and family and gain strength through their support. Email your status every few days and if they ask what you need, don’t be afraid to let your close friends know you’d like a visit, a ride, food or anything else – they want to help, so let them! Believe it or not, talking on the phone and giving personal updates can wear your out. Though it may seem a bit impersonal at first sending out an email, you can do that and check replies when you feel up to it.
8. Practice sleeping on your back. If you are not a back sleeper, start before you have the surgery to figure this out; don’t wait until you are home from the hospital and in pain. It may also feel good to place a pillow under your elbow away from your side.
9. Get your support team together. Determine whom needs to be on your team – which doctors, religious or emotional support, and services like American Cancer Society or Living Well Cancer Resource Center (a western Chicago suburb non-profit). Make sure all team members are informed and ready to support you. People can’t help you if you don’t let them know what is going on in your life. If you think it will help, meet with your spiritual advisor. Let your church know what you are facing. My church has a prayer list and a ministry volunteer dropped off a prayer shawl to me that was a great comfort during recovery. I also received a blessing before surgery and asked for the “Anointing of the Sick” sacrament to help me prepare mentally.
10. Meet with one (or more) plastic surgeons (PS) to get their advice and counsel. Check their references and feel comfortable with their results by looking at photographs of their work or talking with past patients. Your “before” photograph also helps the PS reconstruct your breast as close to your natural look as possible. This is YOUR body and you have to look in the mirror at yourself every day for the rest of your life. If you decide to undergo reconstruction, feel good about the PS you have selected. You can also opt to do reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy, which avoids another surgery, but extends your stay in the hospital. Get all the information you need to make the decision that is best for YOU. Whatever you decide will be the right path.