Side effects of surgery
Some common side effects are discussed below. Talk to your health care team about the best ways to deal with them.
For more on this, see Managing side effects.
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Cancer treatment and the emotional impact of the diagnosis can be tiring. Fatigue is common and may continue for weeks or months. Research shows that exercise during and after cancer treatment is safe and can help improve fatigue.
YWCA offers a free exercise program for people who have had breast cancer surgery – call 0449 904 011 or visit YWCA encore. Cancer Council may also run an exercise program near you – call 13 11 20. Your GP may be able to create a management plan for Medicare-funded exercise physiology or physiotherapy.
Arm and shoulder pain, weakness, stiffness and reduced movement are common after surgery and after radiation therapy. Ask your treatment team when you can start exercising your arm. A physiotherapist can show you exercises to reduce shoulder stiffness or pain. This may move fluid near the surgical scar (seroma) and help prevent lymphoedema.
For more on this, see Arm and shoulder exercises after breast surgery.
Numbness and tingling
Surgery can bruise or injure nerves and cause numbness and tingling in the armpit, upper arm or chest area. You may also notice a loss of feeling in your breast or nipple. These changes often improve within a few weeks, but may take longer. Sometimes the numbness or tingling may not go away completely. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can give you exercises that may help.
Fluid may collect in or around the surgical scar and cause a balloon-like swelling. This is most common after a mastectomy. A seroma can also develop in the armpit after an axillary lymph node dissection. The build-up of fluid can be uncomfortable, but is not harmful. A breast care nurse, your specialist or GP, or a radiologist can drain the fluid using a fine needle and a syringe. This procedure isn’t painful, but it may need to be repeated over a few appointments.
Fluid building up in the tissue of the arm or breast may cause swelling after any lymph node surgery. It’s common to have some swelling of your arm or breast after surgery, but this usually settles in the weeks afterwards. If this swelling builds up over weeks or months, this usually means you have lymphoedema. It can happen any time, even years after surgery (or radiation therapy) to the lymph nodes.
Learn about ways to manage the symptoms of lymphoedema.
My experience is that lymphoedema is very manageable if you notice the signs early. Although I’d had lots of lymphoedema education I actually missed the signs and didn’t realise I had it until I developed cellulitis.Suzanne
Also known as axillary web syndrome, cording is caused by hardened lymph vessels. It feels like a tight cord running from your armpit down the inner arm, sometimes to the palm of your hand. Some people can see and feel raised cord-like structures across their arm, and these cords can limit movement or cause pain.
Learn about ways to manage cording.
Podcast: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis
A/Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and The University of Sydney, NSW; Collette Butler, Clinical Nurse Consultant and McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Cancer Support Centre, Launceston, TAS; Tania Cercone, Consumer; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Dr Marcus Dreosti, Radiation Oncologist and Medical Director, GenesisCare, SA; Dr Susan Fraser, Breast Physician, Cairns Hospital and Marlin Coast Surgery Cairns, QLD; Dr Hilda High, Genetic Oncologist, Sydney Cancer Genetics, NSW; Prof David W Kissane AC, Chair of Palliative Medicine Research, The University of Notre Dame Australia, and St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, NSW; Prof Sherene Loi, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr W Kevin Patterson, Medical Oncologist, Adelaide Oncology and Haematology, SA; Angela Thomas, Consumer; Iwa Yeung, Physiotherapist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD.
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