Preparing for the Most Unexpected Body Change After Breast Cancer

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Contributor: Diane Galvin, PT

After breast cancer surgery, many women are caught off guard by a lack of sensation in their breast(s) and other affected areas.

They have a lumpectomy, mastectomy or reconstruction and ask: “Am I ever going to get any feeling back… in my armpit? …over the scar? …on the inside of my arm?” They might comment on the lack of feeling, saying, “It doesn’t hurt. It just feels weird.” Or, put another way, “I can feel pressure but nothing normal.”

In the fight to overcome breast cancer, it is this numbness — whether a dull feeling or overall lack of sensation — that seems to be an unexpected side effect. Women expect some pain but not the nothingness. And unfortunately, it takes a long time for feeling to return, and it may not ever return fully.

How touching can help

One of the earliest steps toward recovery is managing the physical changes. How do you do this? Touch your skin, touch your chest and yes, touch your wound.

So many women are squeamish for so many reasons. The area feels different. It looks different. Emotionally, the loss of a breast can be difficult.

It is important to make sure that the skin remains mobile on top of the underlying tissue, no matter which procedure you’ve had. This prevents adhesions from forming.

Remember, skin is very flexible. Pregnancy? It stretches! But if left to heal without movement, it may form adhesions. Then, when you resume normal activity, like reaching up toward a high shelf or putting on your seat belt, the skin may not stretch with you.

Also, gentle movement stimulates blood flow around the area. This may bring feeling back to the area sooner. Remember, it probably won’t feel the way it did before surgery, but it can give you some sensation.

Don’t let fear stop you

Sometimes, fear can get in our way. I’ve heard women say they don’t want to touch the surgical site, stating “I’m afraid that I’ll feel another lump. So I won’t touch myself at all.”

Cancer is so scary. But it is for that very reason that you need to be very familiar with how your chest feels. This includes knowing how your skin and muscles and armpit and collarbone feel. Also, this means knowing how your reconstructed breast feels — and how your other breast feels.

You don’t need to be an expert in palpation. But no one knows your body better than you do. If you feel a change, tell your doctor. But get to know your post-surgical body well.

Feel it. Move it. Help it heal.

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