Whether the one facing this body-altering surgery is you, or someone close to you, mastectomies can be a scary and emotional procedure to think about. One way to calm the nerves is to focus on the practical ways you can be prepared for it.
Here are a few essentials that helped me (and a few tips that made it emotionally bearable).
First, have these supplies ordered and organized at home before surgery day:
Non-stick gauze pads and bacitracin ointment. The surgery center and/or your breast surgeon/plastic surgeon will likely give you a bunch of samples in your pre-op appointments. If they don’t offer, ask. It’s great to have extras at home as you heal and focus on wound care.
The non-stick gauze pads are a game-changer – even though you may no longer have sensation at the surgery site, they are still much easier to use than the ones that pull and tug at your already traumatized skin.
The bacitracin will come in handy each time you change out the dressing and/or pads. Even the little sample sizes are generous – I could usually make one last for at least two if not three applications.
Shower lanyard to hold your surgical drains. The number of drains you have can vary, depending on if you are having a single or double mastectomy, and if you are having reconstruction at the same time. I had a DIEP flap procedure and ended up with three drains (one from the breast and one at each of my hips).
To help me have some independence in the shower (and to keep the tubes that connect to the drains from getting tangled or caught on something – ouch!), my friends Kerri and Natalie gave me a shower lanyard. It almost looks like a two-can beer koozie that hangs around the back of your neck. I could not have gone without it!
Zip-front sports bras. You don’t necessarily need to chuck out your underwire bras, but you can absolutely pack them away for the foreseeable future. Soft, comfy and zip-front sports bras are the way to go – prioritize options that don’t have overly complicated or strappy backs – you want something that is easy to get into and out of, as your mobility will be super limited for quite awhile.
I learned this the hard way, after I’d bought a few over the head styles that were a b!+ch to get on, and then way too tight for long-term wear. My breast surgeon said that one of her other patients had had good luck with the basic zip-fronts from Academy. I tried one out (their BCG Women’s Seamless Zip Front Mid Impact Sports Bra), and now have four. Even with mastectomy recovery in the rearview mirror, these sports bras are among the first I grab for everyday wear.
Loose-fitting, button-front pajamas. I’d once read that you should have a pair of pajamas you are prepared to throw away because the drainage will ruin them – it scared the snot out of me, and happily, I found out that it wasn’t even close to being a true statement, at least not in my experience. Stains are why God gave us Spray N’ Wash (and the drainage really wasn’t that excessive).
Still though, you will definitely want to have at least two sets of loose-fitting, button-front PJs (one to wear when one is in the wash). My friend Melissa sent me a cute gray pair from Amazon and I still love and wear them often. There is certainly no need to invest in premium-priced sets – the goal is to have a cool, comfy and non-clingy fabric, in a size that won’t constrict you and that has room for those obnoxiously necessary apparatuses (surgical drains).
Loose-fitting, button-front shirts and/or layers. The latter of course depends on where you live and the season. If your surgeon is like mine, they will advise against wearing any type of bra for several weeks after the surgery. Old Navy puffer vests and my denim jacket (Nordstrom Rack for the win!) were some of my favorite things when it came to going out and about and not obviously showing the world I was walking around bra-less.
A seat belt pad. The same thoughtful women who gave me that shower lanyard also included a seat belt pad in my pre-mastectomy prep basket. I didn’t even know these existed, but boy was it a lifesaver. Have your caregiver clip it onto the seat belt at about chest height – you wouldn’t think the minor bumps and dips in the road are a big deal, but then you have a mastectomy and every car ride feels like you’re off-roading. This pad makes all the difference. On that first car ride home I clutched it for dear life.
A caregiver that has your back. It can be your significant other, a good friend – just make sure it’s someone who will be a calming presence (no stress-makers or drama creators allowed!) I’m fortunate that my caregiver is also my person, who can sense what’s needed and takes care of it without creating a production. So when I say “has your back”, in my mind, it’s also someone like him – someone who can smuggle in decent eats ;). After staff delivered that first day’s lunch, he took one look at it and was like, “Nope. No way. You are not eating that. I’m running to Chicken Salad Chick.”
A sense of humor. I nicknamed my morphine pump Matthew McConaughey. The weekend before my procedure, I threw a big ole party called The Breast is History and invited girlfriends who I knew to be supportive, faithful and fun-loving. I worked for weeks on the menu, and had the best time distracting myself with party details. We drank electric pink drinks strong enough to (quote my friend Jenny, who took one sip of the Prickly Pear Margs and then coughed) “put hair on your chest!”
That night we also huddled together and shared an intimate group prayer, and the next day, I laughed my tail off opening some of the sweetest, funniest finds they came up with to let me know they were in my corner.
The F Cancer socks were totally on my feet the morning of surgery and gave the nurses a good cackle. In the weeks prior, I occupied myself with brunches, lunches and dinners with different friend groups. It did my heart and soul much good to spend the weeks leading up to surgery in fellowship with the people who make my heart happy.
Consider who these people are for you. I guarantee you have them in your life. To be as intensely private and fiercely independent as I naturally am, this experience softened me in, I think, a lot of good ways. There is no sense in being stubborn and trying to go all solo mission here.
It’s a tough surgery – physically and emotionally – and the healing process can be so much better when you set aside this ridiculous notion that it’s not ok to ask for help. Hogwash!
I was overwhelmed (in all the best ways) by how thoughtfully and beautifully people showed up for me. Reframe your mindset now – it is OK to let people love on you!