Last updated: May 17, 2008

If you're having a lumpectomy, chances are good that your recovery will be pretty uneventful, says Monica Morrow, MD, chief of the Breast Service in the Department of Surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "Outside of strenuous physical activity, most women are ready to return to regular physical activity in a period of five days after surgery," she says.

Mastectomies are more complicated, usually requiring an overnight hospital stay; expect it to take three to four weeks before your energy level is back to normal. "But when you go home from the hospital you can do most things; it's not like you're in bed for a month," says Dr. Morrow.

Here's what else doctors have to say about recovering from breast cancer surgery.

1. Keep moving. Becoming a couch potato isn't just bad for your state of mind, it also ups your risk for deep-vein thrombosis, which can turn into a life-threatening embolism in your lung. Keep the arm on the side of the mastectomy gently moving, too.


2. Be prepared for some pain. To control pain, your doctor will give you a prescription-strength pain reliever, but "many people get away with taking Extra Strength Tylenol," says Ingrid M. Meszoely, MD, assistant professor of surgical oncology and clinical director of the Vanderbilt Breast Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. She's found that nights tend to be the hardest times for pain, so be sure to have something on hand in case you need it.

3. Take care of your drains. Instead of allowing the area around your surgery to swell, your surgeon likely installed clear hoses to gradually drain fluids. You'll need to track how much fluid is going out so that your doctor knows when it's time for the drains to come out, usually after one or two weeks. Don't worry that your drain will come out by accident; it won't. Women who have a mastectomy with or without implant reconstruction will have one or two drains, plus another if you had your lymph nodes removed. "And if you have a TRAM flap reconstruction you'll have drains on your belly and chest," Dr. Meszoely adds. (If you have only a lumpectomy—with or without a sentinel node biopsy—you won't have to deal with a drain at all.)

4. Watch out for lymphedema. This is one of the more likely side effects of a mastectomy, though it affects just 25% of patients who've had the surgery. The arm on the side where you had lymph nodes removed swells up and retains fluid. See your doctor for treatment.