Last summer, I had a prophylactic double mastectomy to reduce my breast cancer risk associated with being BRCA1-positive . Whether you get a mastectomy and breast reconstruction preventively like I did or as part of active treatment after a breast cancer diagnosis , it can be daunting to recover from major surgery. It’s common to worry about how much pain you will be in or what your physical limitations might be as well as wonder what kind of support you’ll need.
I found that preparing in advance for surgery and setting up my home as best as I could was comforting, allowing me to return from the hospital with everything I needed already or mostly in place.
If you want your post-op experience to be less stressful, here are some tips on how to set up every area of your home for a smooth recovery.
Change Your Sleeping Habits
Create a comfortable sleep setup
When you come home from surgery, you won’t be able to sleep in your bed like you normally do — at least for a short while. “There may be challenges finding a comfortable position that does not put pressure on incisions or drain sites, especially when it is a bilateral surgery,” explains Kelly Hunt, MD, a professor and chair of the department of breast surgical oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
To get comfortable in bed, you may want to use a variety of pillows, like a wedge pillow to recline on or a heart-shaped mastectomy pillow that can be tucked under armpits to keep pressure off sensitive surgical sites while they’re healing. For me, getting in and out of bed was difficult, so I camped out on the couch for a week, with two regular pillows propped behind my back so I could sleep semi-upright.
Consider sleeping in a lift chair
I had direct-to-implant (DTI) reconstruction at the same time as my mastectomy, which is less invasive than autologous, or “flap,” reconstruction. But Beth DeLong, 36, a breast cancer survivor and founder of Adventure After Cancer, who had DIEP flap breast reconstruction (taking tissue from one area of the body — the lower abdomen — and using it to reconstruct the breast), required a more involved sleep setup when she was recovering from surgery. For the first two weeks after surgery, she slept in a lift chair, which she borrowed from a friend. You can rent a lift chair from a local medical supply company if you find you need it.
Prep Your Kitchen
Make sure everything is accessible
After surgery, you’re not supposed to lift your arms above shoulder height. So make sure to get your kitchen ready by taking everything you’ll need down from high shelves — like plates, glasses, and nonperishable food — and leaving them out on the counter so they are easy to reach.
Get groceries and prepared meals delivered
Between driving to the store, dealing with crowded aisles, and lifting heavy bags, you definitely do not want to go grocery shopping while you’re recovering. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can have your groceries delivered to your home, and depending on where you live, there are other grocery delivery services such as Instacart, FreshDirect, and Target Shipt.
Similarly, you can eliminate the burden of cooking by having prepared meals delivered as well. Ask friends to bring over prepared meals — you could have them sign up for time slots using Google Sheets or by creating an account on MealTrain.com. Make sure to include any dietary restrictions, preferences, or other instructions. You can also order fully prepared meals (versus meal kits, where you have to prepare and cook the food) to be delivered to your home from a number of subscription services , and some grocery delivery services even offer prepared meal options, too.
Create a Drain Station
One of the more dreaded aspects of getting breast surgery is the drain. During the procedure, one or more surgical drains (also called Jackson-Pratt, or JP, drains) are inserted into your body to remove fluids that collect near your incision sites, which helps ensure proper healing and prevent infection. These drains remain attached to you when you go home, and you have to empty them throughout the day and log the fluid output.
Having a “drain station” set up on top of my dresser was key for making this process go smoothly. Your station can include things like Purell for sanitizing your hands, liquid measuring containers for collecting and measuring the fluid (the hospital should provide these), and a pen and a drain output log (again, the hospital should send you home with this, but if you need extra copies you can download this drain log template from mastectomy lingerie brand AnaOno). I also found it helpful to empty my drains in front of a full-length mirror.
Set Up a Bathing Station
My plastic surgeon did not want me to shower while I had my drains due to the possibility that water could get into the drain exit site. So I set up a “wash” station in my bedroom with several types of wipes — face wipes, deodorant wipes, and large body wipes — for my daily “bathing” ritual. Having a full-length mirror nearby also helped when I was wiping down my face and body. How soon you’re permitted to shower after surgery varies from doctor to doctor, so make sure to ask your provider for their specific post-op bathing instructions.
Take Your Medication
It’s important to take all the medications your doctors prescribe, and the best way to do this is to log everything — which pill you took and at what time you took it. Write everything down in a notebook, or use a medication-tracking app on your phone. I like the Medisafe app — in addition to logging your medications, you can also schedule them all in, so an alarm goes off when it’s time to take each one.
Remember to log any side effects or symptoms you’re experiencing and contact your doctor if you have any concerns. Some things to look out for include potential infections to the surgical site; fluid buildup, swelling, and/or pain in the breast or “donor site” (the area of the body used to reconstruct breasts for a flap surgery, if applicable); excessive bleeding or blood clots; and an allergic reaction to a medication.
Check Your Insurance Coverage Before Getting Medical Equipment
Before you spend a lot of money buying or renting postsurgical recovery supplies, check your health insurance benefits. Many policies include coverage for what’s called durable medical equipment, or DME. Depending on your coverage, this can include things like walkers, shower chairs, and lift chairs, all of which DeLong says can be helpful for recovery from surgeries like DIEP flap reconstruction. It could even include breast prostheses and mastectomy bras!
Contact your insurance company to inquire about its full list of covered DME and what its requirements are. This can be a complicated process to navigate and requires obtaining prescriptions from your doctors for any necessary DME. Wendy Griffith, LCSW, an oncology social worker and program manager of the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, recommends asking if there’s a case manager or social worker at your hospital with experience in this area who can help you handle the logistics.
When you’re undergoing a mastectomy and reconstruction, it could mean one surgery or several if your mastectomy and reconstruction are done separately. Either way, these tips will help you set yourself up for a more comfortable — and hopefully quick — recovery.