Surgery Side-effects

Unfortunately, side effects are part-and-parcel of any treatment for breast cancer. Be sure to tell your medical team about any side-effects you experience because there are often steps that can be taken to dramatically reduce the impact of these.

Below are some of the more common side-effects associated with breast cancer surgery and some tips on how to deal with them.

Common side-effects

  • Wound infection– the wound may feel especially tender, appear red and swollen and there may be a discharge. Antibiotics are all that is needed to deal with this issue.
  • Pain– some women experience pain after surgery, especially if they have had the lymph nodes removed. Special arm exercises can be very helpful in dealing with this pain. Your breast care nurse should be able to advise you on steps to take and your doctor will prescribe pain relief if you need it.  
  • Cording– this occurs in some women who have had lymph nodes removed. It’s a pulling sensation and can be felt from the armpit down to the elbow or even the wrist. It can be painful and uncomfortable. Again, your breast care nurse will have advice on how best to deal with this, but you may like to try:
    • applying a warm pack to the area
    • taking paracetamol or another pain medication
    • gentle stretching exercises.

These symptoms will disappear over time.

  • Numbness – you may experience some loss of feeling in the chest, armpit or upper arm area. This is due to reactive swelling of the surrounding tissue putting pressure on the nerves or may be due to nerve damage during surgery.  It is usually temporary and will improve and disappear over time, however in some cases it may be permanent.
  • Seromas– some women may get an excessive build up of fluid in the surgical area, especially in the armpit or under the mastectomy scar. These are known as a seromas and they can be quite uncomfortable. The excess fluid is usually absorbed by the body over time, however in some cases your surgeon may drain the excess fluid with a syringe or you may have a chest tube drain in place for a longer period of time.
  • Lymphoedema – this is a condition which causes swelling of the arm and may occur in women who have had their lymph nodes removed. The arm swells because these lymph nodes are no longer present to help drain excess lymph fluid from the body.

Below are some precautions you can take:

  • look after your skin and make sure it’s moisturised regularly
  • use gloves when gardening
  • protect your arm from sunburn
  • avoid having injections in the treated arm if possible
  • treat any cuts or abrasions quickly to avoid infection
  • wear a compression sleeve when travelling on a long-haul flight
  • avoid excessive repetitive actions with the arm.

If lymphoedema does develop, it can be managed through:

  • light touch massage
  • wearing compression garments
  • special care of the affected limb
  • protecting skin from cuts, insect bites and scratches
  • targeted exercise. 

Therapy for lymphoedema prevention and treatment is highly specialised. Always check first to ensure a therapist is appropriately qualified. Your local branch of the New Zealand Cancer Society should be able to put you in touch with a therapist in your area.  

For more information on Lymphoedema, see our lymphoedema page.

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