Possible problems after mastectomy

There is a risk of problems or complications after any operation. Most problems are minor but some can be serious. Treating them as soon as possible is important.

Your nurse will give you the phone numbers of who to contact if you have any problems when you are at home. 

Blood clots

After surgery, you're at risk of blood clots developing in your legs. There is also a small risk of a blood clot in your lungs.

To prevent blood clots, your nurses get you up as soon as possible after your operation. They encourage you to move around or do your leg exercises.

Also, during and after your operation, you wear special stockings (called anti embolism stockings or TEDS). And after your operation you might have injections to thin your blood for a while.

Tell your doctor straight away or go to A&E if you:

  • have a painful, red, swollen leg, which may feel warm to touch
  • are short of breath
  • have pain in your chest or upper back
  • cough up blood

Feeling tired and weak

Most people feel weak and lack strength for some time afterwards. How long this lasts varies between people.

Tell your doctor or nurse if the weakness continues for more than a few weeks. They can suggest things to help, such as physiotherapy.

Bleeding from the wound

You might have a small amount of blood on your wound dressing after surgery, which is normal. Your nurse will regularly check your dressing after the operation. Tell your doctor or nurse straight away if there is more bleeding.

Wound infection

Tell your doctor or nurse if your wound:

  • looks red or swollen
  • feels warm
  • is painful
  • leaks fluid (discharge)

These are signs of infection. You may also feel unwell and have a temperature.

If you have an infection, your doctor will give you antibiotics. You might need to stay in longer or go back into hospital if you need antibiotics through a drip.

Fluid collecting around the operation site (seroma)

Sometimes fluid collects near the wound and around the armpit. This might happen after your nurse removes the wound drain if you have one.

It can cause:

  • swelling
  • pain
  • an increased risk of infection

The fluid normally goes away on its own within a few weeks. 

Your nurse or doctor can drain the fluid with a needle and syringe if the seroma is painful. Sometimes the fluid can build up again after being drained. 

Tell your doctor or nurse if you think a seroma is developing.

Blood collecting around the operation site (haematoma)

Occasionally blood collects in the tissues around the wound. This can cause pain and swelling, and the area might feel hard.

The haematoma normally goes away on its own, but it can take a few months. Your doctor or nurse can drain the swelling if needed.

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have any swelling around the wound.

Nerve pain

You might have numbness, tingling or a shooting pain in your armpit, upper arm, shoulder or chest wall. This is due to damage to the nerves during surgery. The nerves usually repair themselves, but it can take many weeks or months.

Your doctor or nurse can give you medicines to help with nerve pain.

Shoulder stiffness

Your shoulder might become stiff and painful after breast surgery or removal of the lymph nodes.

Your nurse or a physiotherapist will show you exercises to do after your operation to help improve movement in the shoulder.

A swollen arm or hand

You might have some slight swelling in your arm or hand after your operation. This should settle soon after your surgery. 

Tell your doctor or nurse as soon as possible if the swelling does not settle or if you have pain or tenderness in your arm or hand.

You are at risk of long term swelling (lymphoedema) in your hand and arm after surgery to remove your lymph glands. This is swelling caused by lymph fluid that can't drain away. It can happen any time after surgery.

Once you have lymphoedema it can’t be cured but early treatment can help to control it. Your nurse will talk to you about ways of preventing lymphoedema.

Scar tissue in the armpit (cording)

Some women develop scar tissue in the armpit after lymph node removal. The connective tissues in the armpit get inflamed, which forms one or more tight bands. This usually happens within the first few weeks or months after the operation.

The scar tissue is called cording or banding or axillary web syndrome. It can feel something like a guitar string. It can extend down the arm past the elbow, possibly as far as the wrist or thumb.

Cording is harmless but can be painful and can limit your arm movement. Massaging the area regularly can help. Tell your breast care nurse if you develop cording. They can refer you to a physiotherapist. They can show you how to massage the area and teach you stretching exercises. It usually gets better within a few months. Taking anti inflammatory painkillers may also help. Speak to your nurse or doctor about taking these. 

Picture showing cording in the armpit

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