What to expect on the day of your mastectomy

A Mastectomy during a Pandemic

I am writing this because I didn’t find helpful resources out there about what to expect when getting a mastectomy during a pandemic. There are a lot of great blogs about how friends can help you, what your partner can do during surgery, etc, but none that explain cancer surgery during COVID-19.

I had my mastectomy during the beginning of the third surge of coronavirus -- in October 2020. Things were not as locked-down as I would have liked, particularly when it came to other patients. Please, people, if you are going to a doctor’s appointment, you have GOT to be considerate of other people. 

Someone in that waiting room is immuno-compromised. Someone in that waiting room has recently gotten a cancer diagnosis. Someone in that waiting room is terrified for their life. The least you can do is wear a mask properly, not bring your whole family to your appointment, and not sit down right next to a stranger.

There is a move towards mastectomies being outpatient now. I don’t love that, since it’s such a major surgery, but in COVID times, I appreciated being able to get out of a virus-filled hospital immediately. The outpatient thing makes a lot more sense if your surgery is early morning. They can keep you for several hours, monitor your vitals, and still get you home before tea time.

Before I begin, here's a link to 15 Things You Need to Recover from your Mastectomy. Disclosure: It's an Amazon shop link, and I get pennies from them when you click over. I wrote a whole blog post about this, but having the Amazon link is easier, fewer ads, etc.

Here’s how my day went. Obviously I had nothing to eat or drink after midnight (I was allowed to have some water before 9a since my surgery was so late in the day).

What I wore to the hospital:

  • Button up pajamas

  • underwear

  • slippers

What I brought with me to the hospital:

  • journal & pen

  • phone

  • Wallet

  • I wish I'd brought the mastectomy pillow, for the ride home.


10:30a - A neighbor came over to sit outside/masked to watch my kids (4 and 8).In order to avoid overly emotional goodbyes and keep the kids from freaking out, I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for them.  I was going to drop them off at the on my way to the hospital, but the thought of saying goodbye to them at someone else’s house was really upsetting. 

11:00 My husband drove me to the hospital.

11:15 I walked in to check-in and register. My husband stayed in the car in the parking lot with his phone at the ready. My nurse said she would call him when he could come into the pre-surgery room right before they rolled me to the OR.

11:30 This part was cool: A music therapist I knew came out to say hello to me and check on my mental health. We didn’t play music, but it was nice to talk to a friendly face who wouldn’t be cutting me open that day. If you’re having a surgery: ASK in THE WEEKS BEFORE if a social worker or music therapist or art therapist can come talk to you before your operation. This is especially important during COVID, since you are not allowed to have family with you. It provides an extra layer of support, and the therapist is someone who is a little more emotionally invested in you.

11:45 I finally went back to a waiting room on the surgery floor, where I undressed and put my clothes in a bag. They took blood, then hooked me up to an IV to give me fluids. They were supposed to give me a calming medicine, but because the OR was running so far behind, they didn’t do that. 

They did not automatically call my husband, like they said they would. I finally asked and they said, “Oh yeah, you can call him, and he can come back.” I had to call him myself, so let your phone be the last thing you put away after you undress.

12:30 My husband came in and a stream of people came into explain things to him. 

  • They explained the Jackson-Pratt (JP) drains to him and how to empty them after surgery. I was cognizant, but nervous and glad that my husband was there to hear the information. 

  • They gave me a camisole that had built-in pockets to hide the drains, a fanny pack, a chest pillow for the car-ride home.

  • They also gave me a pillow like this one (pictured right; click to purchase).

  • An anesthesiologist came into ask me about previous experiences with anesthesia and reactions, etc. You’d think they would have already known that stuff, but I guess not. You can ask for things to help with nausea, and do mention if you are a natural redhead (especially if your natural hair has faded). Redheads respond differently to anesthesia, and your doctors should be aware of this already.

  • Another doctor came in to give me a shot of blue, radioactive dye in the breast with the tumor. (Fun fact: she was in there for 90 seconds and her bill was $395, not including the medicine itself.) Make sure to ask for Lidocaine before they give you that fat needle in the boob. They won't always offer it, but you'll be glad you had it.

2:00ish I had a headache, so I asked for something. I don’t know if they actually gave me anything, but the headache was likely because I was hungry and also had not had my morning coffee. The surgery was clearly running behind so we were just killing time and worrying about the babysitter. 

  • My husband and I laughed nervously and talked about a bunch of stuff and I told him I loved him etc.

  • Finally, the surgeon came in and discussed the procedure quickly. I have only a vague memory of this, so they must have given me a relaxant by that point.

  • My husband had to leave.

  • Nurses wheeled the bed I was in to the OR.

3:30 The OR was bright and there was music playing. I was still awake when they lifted me onto the table and the anesthesiologist said something about “more fentanyl” and then I don’t remember much of anything. 

8:00pm I awake, but barely. I had a lot of anesthesia (it’s a redhead thing, look it up), and apparently I took longer than they liked for me to wake up. But they called my husband in and everyone walked me to the bathroom. They really wanted me to pee before sending me home. I was basically asleep and really wanted to barf, but nothing hurt. Nothing at all.
I could not pee, but they sent me home anyway. They seemed to have really wanted me to pee first, but also they were ready to clock out for the day.

 I had a little barf bag with me the whole time and did a lot of dry heaving. Anesthesia does not sit well with me.

My favorite wedge pillow.

8:30  We arrived home, and I freaked out the kids by dry heaving and being unable to stand without David’s help. But they saw I was alive, and that seemed to relieve them enough to be able to finally go to bed. I slept on a wedge pillow with a mastectomy pillow on my chest, in the same pajamas I had worn to the hospital that morning. I have zero memory of putting them on after surgery. 

We did make sure we had a blood pressure cuff and an oximeter/pulse-reader at home in case something seemed off. This was entirely our preparation though, not the hospitals, and it seems like something that they should have given us or suggested beforehand.

When you stay at the hospital they check your vitals all the time. I don’t understand why they just cut off your boobs and send you home. A home health visitor would have been really helpful. If you have a nurse friend or neighbor, it’s worth having them stop by the next day to check on you -- outside and masked. (Remember that when people are offering to help!.)

Things that surprised me:

  • I had no bandages on my chest. The surgeon sewed me up and then covered the incisions with glue. I was expecting to be wearing a compression bra and a bunch of bandages (because that’s what I’d seen on other blogs), but nope. My bare chest was just wearing my pajamas, which had me all worried about infections. I was grateful we had hired a housekeeper to deep clean while we were out for the day.

  • I had no feeling at all in my chest. I’d read that I wouldn’t, but that was still a really weird thing to wake up to. 

  • Somehow my nipples were achy -- but it was phantom pain. My nipples are gone!

  • I also had lots of phantom letdowns, as if I were nursing a baby. I hadn’t had a letdown in years. 

  • The drains feel super duper weird and make you very cautious about how you walk and sleep. Warn your partner about them because that’s what I was most self-conscious about -- him being grossed out by the drains. Sometimes they contain clots and it looks gross.

  • Pharmacies close, so we had to have a neighbor rush to our pharmacy to pick up painkillers for us.

Anything I've left out that you know of? Please add to this! If I see the comments, I'll edit the blog and add information.

Good luck!