Suzie's reconstruction diary part 4: The weeks after surgery
After 4 ½ years on the waiting list for bilateral DIEP breast reconstruction surgery and being first on the waiting list for more than a year, Suzie and her husband decided to pay for the surgery privately.
This is part 4 of Suzie’s journal of her surgery and recovery. Here she details her experiences over a month after having her breast reconstruction.
The weeks after surgery
I am still struggling with nerve pain across the tops of my new breasts. Also, the centre of my torso is becoming more sensitive and gets quite uncomfortable by the end of the day. This area was mainly numb, and the increased sensitivity may be a sign that the nerves are kicking into action again. It’s a nuisance, and on bad days I am desperate to uncover the area so that my clothes stop touching the area and setting off mini fireworks in my skin. I have noticed that there is a hard area in a 5cm long section under my abdominal wound. I googled it – big mistake! It’s not sore or looking infected so I will keep an eye on it and ask my surgeon about it at my six-week check. My pectoral muscles have become very tight, and at times uncomfortable, and I can tell that I will have to work on them at rehab as soon as I am allowed to. I’m struggling with how long this recovery is taking. Sometimes it feels as if there hasn’t been any progress for weeks. I was warned that this surgery comes with a very long recovery, and I have learned that the recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line. The first few weeks involved lots of steps towards recovery, but after that things have slowed right down. I’m starting to find it very difficult mentally.
Six weeks post surgery
I tried to reduce my anti-inflammatory dose from 100mg twice a day to 100mg once a day for a second time earlier in the week and felt great until day three, when I developed significantly increased pain. It was painful to move because my skin was so sensitive that it hurt where my clothes were touching it. I reinstated my second daily dose again, but it took 24 hours and several doses of paracetamol before the mini fireworks on my skin calmed down and I was able to move around as usual again. I feel like I should be off the tablets by now and I’m worried about what my surgeon will say when I see her in a few days’ time.
Seven weeks post surgery
I took the tape off my scars over the weekend. I found it strangely scary doing so because in my mind I felt as if the tape was holding everything together. I know it wasn’t doing that but wearing the tape had become so normal that it had become a kind of security blanket. At first my scars felt a bit sensitive, but after a day or so I can’t imagine going back to wearing tape again.
I saw my surgeon yesterday and she was happy with my healing. She said I need to put Bio-Oil or collagen gel on my scars twice a day until the three-month mark.
I was relieved that my surgeon was not concerned about my ongoing use of anti-inflammatories for pain relief. After discussing the option to change to pain relief that is better targeted to nerve pain such as Gabapentin and Amitriptyline – both of which I have tried before and cannot tolerate – she wrote me another prescription for anti-inflammatories and said it would be ideal if I could be off them by the time I see her next at the three-month check.
When my surgeon examined me, she noted that my right breast has dropped more than my left. She said that this is common and that the left breast would likely drop to match the right over the next couple of months. She also pointed out a slight hollowing that has developed above my right breast since it dropped, and she commented that it could be corrected with fat grafting. It’s a 90-minute day-stay surgery under general anaesthetic and it takes 1-2 weeks to recover. It can be repeated many times until the desired result is achieved. If I was to undergo fat grating, it could happen six months after reconstruction, and nipple reconstruction could happen six months after fat grafting. I’m not sure if it’s worth putting myself through that at this stage, but I have decided to wait and make a decision in another few months when I am further along in my reconstruction recovery.
Eight weeks post surgery
I’ve finally had progress with my pain. The nerve pain suddenly settled and now the only pain I have is a sensation similar to bruising along the scar line between and above my breasts. Strangely, if I massage the scar (which is very uncomfortable) it seems to reduce the pain for a while after I stop massaging.
My scars are quite bright and red at the moment, however this is the stage where they are expected to look the worst. With time they will fade and become much less visible. I have been recommended a cream called Alhydran by my cancer rehabilitation physio. It is for scar reduction. I am using it in the mornings when I need to dress straight after applying it, and continuing with using Bio-Oil at night.
My cancer rehabilitation physio has given me exercises to help me regain strength in my tummy muscles (the ones used for sit-ups) and to help loosen up my pectoral muscles. After almost a week of doing the exercises, I have been able to increase the difficulty and reps of the core muscle exercises, and I am finding the pectoral muscle exercises easy too. My right pec is feeling pretty good now, but my left side is still very stiff despite its flexibility. Since my cancer was on the left side originally, and I had left-side auxiliary node dissection and radiation treatment, my left pectoral muscles have never recovered properly since my mastectomy four years ago. I have been told that reconstruction might help due to the weight of the breast pulling my pecs into a more natural position. I really hope that is the case.