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Living with breast cancer surgery

It can take some time to adjust to a new body shape after breast cancer surgery. The swelling and bruising will go down and the scars from your operation will gradually get less obvious. Women usually gradually become used to their new shape, and false breast shape (prosthesis) if they wear one. You are likely to find that your confidence will gradually come back.

Your feelings after breast surgery

The first months may be very upsetting. Many women have feelings of grief, fear, shock, anger and resentment. Your self confidence may also be affected. Many women need time to come to terms with the changes to, or loss of, their breast. Give yourself time to adjust. It can help to talk to friends and family and your breast cancer nurse. Talking to people who have had similar experiences can also help.

Finding out beforehand about the likely effects of the operation can really help in dealing with them afterwards. 

Sexuality after breast surgery

Your emotions after breast surgery may change your sexual feelings for a while. And if you think your partner may be put off, you may worry about allowing them to see or touch your body. There is no right or wrong way to approach this. Some women feel very sensitive and need time to build up their courage to be looked at or touched by their partner. Others need almost instant comfort and find that loving touch relieves their fear of being rejected.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Living with breast cancer section.

 

 

The healing process

It can take some time to adjust to a new body shape after breast surgery. After your operation the swelling will go down, bruising will fade, and scars gradually become less obvious

Most women gradually become used to their new shape, whether they've had conservative surgery or a mastectomy, or a reconstruction after mastectomy. You will get more used to your false breast shape (prosthesis) if you wear one, and less worried that it will fall out or that other people will notice it. You are likely to find that your confidence will gradually come back.

The emotional ups and downs may last longer. You may find anxieties coming back when you go for check ups or if a programme on the television or radio mentions cancer. Or new situations may bring more fears, anger and insecurities. If you get involved with a new partner, you may get very anxious.

Breast cancer surgery can leave you emotionally and physically drained. It is important to give yourself time to adjust. Get care and support from others in whatever way is best for you.

 

Your feelings after breast surgery

It is not unusual to feel very upset at times in the the first months after surgery. Many women have intense feelings including 

  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Shock
  • Anger and resentment

These feelings may be mixed with relief that the cancer has been found and treated. People react very differently to surgery. Most women need time to come to terms with the changes to, or loss of, their breast. Breast cancer surgery can leave you emotionally and physically drained. Give yourself time to adjust. It can help to talk to people you find supportive, including friends and family members, or your breast care nurse. Talking to people who have had breast surgery can be helpful and you can contact them through a support group or online on CancerChat.

We have a page about your feelings. It explains the different emotions you may have and also describes how friends, family and others may help.

 

How you will look after surgery

Women find different ways of dealing with the changes to their bodies. Some prefer to see the results of the surgery for the first time alone. Others want a partner or friend, or doctor or nurse, to be with them when they take their first look.

Your surgeon will do all they can to make sure your scars are as small and discreet as possible. And with time, many scars will fade and be far less visible. How you look is an important part of your self esteem. It can be very hard to accept sudden changes in your looks that you are not happy with. Women often say they feel angry, upset and confused for some time after this type of surgery.

You may feel worried about how friends and family see you. You may think that you are no longer as attractive as you were. Going back to work and meeting new people can be more of a struggle if you are trying to cope with changes in your appearance. Even though people may not be able to see the changes, you may worry that you somehow look different.

If you have children, you may be concerned about how they will see you and how it might affect them. It is normal to worry about these things. But the people closest to you will not see you any differently as a person. They will want to support you as much as they can, so it can help to let them know how you are feeling. Talking things through can help you to feel less isolated and more able to cope.

There are several things that may help you to cope with changes in the way your breasts look. They may not take away all the emotions that you have but they can make things easier. They are described below.

 

Finding out what to expect ahead of time

Talking through your treatment with your surgeon and breast care nurse is probably one of the most important things to do before your operation. Even if you feel at the time that you don't want to know, it can really help you deal with things later on. If you let your surgeon and nurse know that you want to have the complete picture, they will be completely honest with you. They will answer any questions that you have about how you will look and what the surgery will involve. 

You are likely to be very swollen and sore just after surgery, but this is temporary. Your surgeon and breast care nurse will know how worried you are and will want to put your mind at rest wherever possible.

There is information about exercises to do after breast surgery in the after surgery section. There is separate information about exercises after reconstruction using a simple implant of tissue expander implant and about exercises after breast reconstruction surgery using muscle from your back in the section about breast reconstruction.

 

Talking to people who've had similar surgery

This may not help everyone. But some people find it really reassuring. Your surgeon may be able to put you in touch with someone who has had a similar operation. You may prefer to find other women yourself. Have a look at our list of breast cancer organisations. Some of the organisations can put you in touch with people who've had the same operation.

 

Looking in the mirror

Your first reaction after surgery may be that you don't want to look at yourself. This is not unusual. When you look is up to you. It is usually better to wait until a day or two after your operation, when you have recovered a little.

When you do want to look at your scars, you may want to have someone with you. You could choose someone to be there, such as your doctor, nurse, a friend or your partner. But this is up to you. If you would rather be on your own, that's fine. Even if you think you are prepared, your first view may be a shock. You may see stitches or surgical clips, swelling and bruising. So it may be best to have someone there to support you or answer any questions that you have.

Some people feel angry at first and wish that they had never had the operation. You may wish you'd been better prepared. It is important to give yourself time to let everything sink in. The staff will be very aware of your feelings and will do all they can to reassure, help, and support you.

 

Talking to people close to you

The best source of support for most of us is family and friends. You may feel worried about upsetting them. But many people are surprised how much it can help just to share your feelings.

If you are having problems with your intimate and sexual relationships because you are worried about the changes to your body, try letting your partner know. Sometimes counselling can help you to work through any worries that you have.

 

Sexuality after breast surgery

Breast surgery will not directly affect your physical ability to have sex. But your emotions may change your sexual feelings for a while. Many women need to feel fairly happy with their bodies to have a satisfying sex life. If you think that your partner may be put off, you may worry about the time when you allow them to see or touch your body. There is no right or wrong time to take this step. When and how, depends on your own feelings and relationships.

Some women feel very sensitive and need time to build up their courage before they feel able to let their partner look at them or touch them after the surgery. Other women need almost instant comfort and find that touch relieves their fear of being rejected.

Arriving home from hospital after surgery can be an anxious time. Coming to terms with everything you have experienced and the changes to your body can be a lot to deal with. If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, look at our breast cancer organisations page for counselling organisations. To find out more about counselling look at our counselling section.

If undressing with your partner on the first night home from hospital worries you, there are things you can do to prepare. While you are still in hospital, you could ask the nurses to help you tell your partner what the result of the operation may look like. Or you could ask them to speak to your partner for you, if you prefer. A nurse, or your doctor, can be with you when you let your partner see the operation scar. Or you may choose a relative or friend to be with you and talk it over together afterwards.

You may find it helpful to take your partner with you for your clinic visits before the operation. That way they will be prepared for how you will look after the surgery and when you come home. They may also be more able to help support you emotionally at a difficult time if they understand what is being planned.

 

Getting help and support

There are many people who can help and support you. Not everyone feels comfortable asking for outside help and support, but many people find it useful. There are a number of sources of support after breast cancer surgery.

  • Many hospitals have specialist breast care nurses to support you
  • Often doctors can help
  • A caring partner or close friend can give you support
  • The Cancer Research UK nurses can give you information
  • Breast Cancer Care have a national volunteer support programme to put you in touch with women in your area who have been through the same experience – they can offer comfort and practical help
  • Breast cancer support groups around the UK help you meet other women who have had breast cancer

There is information on our who can help page that may also give you some more ideas about where you can find support.

 

Practical aspects of recovery

This page doesn't cover practical aspects of recovering from surgery. There is detailed information about getting over the operation and what you can and can't do on the page called after your operation. There is also information in the breast reconstruction section about exercises to do after this type of surgery.

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Updated: 29 October 2012