Navigating Life After Mastectomy: What to Expect and How to Move Forward
You are entering a new phase of life-long recovery and healing after your mastectomy. Learn more about the physical and emotional changes you might experience and what resources and steps you can take to help you move forward.
For many women who are at risk for or have had an experience with breast cancer, the journey is often centered on getting to the “end” of this process. For survivors, thrivers, previvors — however you define yourself —there is no end, there's just a new phase of life-long recovery and healing.
Once your formal recovery has ended and you’re expected to move on, the resources tend to drop off. Navigating from confronting cancer to embracing life has its own unique set of challenges. How do you manage and live with the changes in your body? How do you move forward with this new part of your identity? How do you find yourself in the world again after that experience? Many women suffer through these questions silently, and we wanted to change that.
It’s difficult to feel prepared for what happens after treatment and surgery when everyone expects you’ll go back to your normal life. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have no evidence of disease or chose to have preventative surgery, there is a lot of work ahead.
Brilliantly started as a way to help fill this necessary gap in the breast cancer community. We wanted to create a safe space where you can share your feelings and experiences with women who get it. We might not have all the answers, but we are navigating through the tough questions together.
Throughout this post, we’ll point you to some resources addressing this time in your life. Remember that every recovery journey is different and that you should consult with your doctor for medical advice.
Stay tuned as we will be covering these topics more in the coming months. We would love to hear from you if you think we missed something or you have an expertise, product, service, or advice to share. Please email us at email@example.com with your thoughts or ideas!
Life after mastectomy and treatment
You have been through incredible trauma, and what that looks like is different for each of us. The symptoms and challenges you face will unfold over time. Some things will feel important and heavy in the first weeks and months and others will hit you by surprise sometimes years later.
Mastectomy by nature is a loss and it’s natural to grieve. It’s not just the loss of a body part. For many women, it’s the feeling that you are losing a sense of yourself. As women, we are often defined by our sexuality and appearance. Losing a part of how you view yourself and your sexuality can be incredibly difficult to come to terms with. Whether you opt for reconstruction or not, your body has changed. Coming to love and accept the new you takes work.
Read more: Keep Walking, a reflection from Kristen about looking ahead.
Whether you consider yourself a survivor, thriver, or previvor, you’ve been through an incredible amount of stress. It’s almost impossible to escape the lingering anxiety over a potential recurrence or any other potential health outcomes. A good way to help mitigate anxiety is with meditation. To help provide this resource to the women in our community, we launched Brilliantly Calm. Learn more: Brilliantly Calm
Feelings of insecurity, self-consciousness, or struggles with body image are common after a mastectomy. Whether your breasts played a crucial role in how you viewed yourself or not, this is still a new change in your body and your appearance. There is often an adjustment period of having to reconcile with your changed body.
The Brilliantly Portrait Project, a collaboration between Brilliantly, JL Photography, and Luminosity Beauty, brings women affected by breast cancer an experience celebrating their resilience, inner strength, and beauty. A photo session celebrating your new body helps you come to terms with all the changes you’ve been through. Photos help you see yourself through a new lens and for many women in our community, it’s the beginning of falling back in love with your body.
Learn more: Brilliantly Portrait Project
Changes in your sex life
It’s almost inevitable that this experience will have an impact on intimacy, sensuality, and/or sexuality. Changes in how you view yourself, your sexuality, and your body impact your sex life. It’s also common to experience vaginal dryness, hot flashes, and low libido after surgery and cancer treatment. Getting back to “normal” in the bed is a big area where a lot of women struggle.
Read more: Sex and Intimacy with Alyssa Pressman
Itching or phantom sensations
Your body experiences phantom pain in a removed breast because the brain is still sending signals to the nerves in your breast area. This often leads to discomfort, itching, pressure, throbbing, and other symptoms at the incision sites after mastectomy. Some women also experience nerve pain, aching, or numbness. For some, these sensations subside shortly after surgery, but for others, the pain persists past that 6-week recovery period.
Many women with implant reconstruction after mastectomy find themselves feeling constantly and distractingly cold due to a lack of fat insulating the implant. The discomfort impacts everything from your mood, to how you structure your day, what activities you’ll do, and what you wear while doing them. This symptom was one of the starting points for Brilliantly. Brilliantly Warm, a product that gives all women discreet control over their temperature, is just about to launch and we couldn’t be more excited to help our pre/survivor sisters feel warm again.
Read more: Designing Brilliantly Warm
How to move forward
None of us asked for this to happen. An experience with breast cancer affects far more than our bodies. Every part of this journey challenges our sense of self in a fundamental way. In that sense, the nature of the circumstance touches every part of our life. And how long it takes to get through it varies from person to person and it won’t quite end.
We want to hear from you. Have you figured out a way to feel good? What helped you? We’d love to know! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share how you’ve moved forward after your mastectomy.
Find your community
Suffering in silence is a lonely and isolating experience. While our loved ones want to be there for us, sometimes it’s hard to have the tough conversations with those you are closest to. Finding a community like Brilliantly is important to be able to talk openly about your experiences, to ask for help, and to realize that you aren’t alone.
Through conversation, we inspire, motivate, and support ourselves and other women. We give ourselves and other women the permission to share our stories and to be okay with not being okay. You are not alone!
Read more: Learn more about the Brilliantly community and sign up for our newsletter today to stay connected.
Take charge of your mindset
Lindsey Baguio Gerhard, a two-time cancer slayer, once told us in an interview, “Cancer doesn’t get to write my story, I get to reclaim it.” The power of changing your mindset can reshape how you view your recovery journey.
Many women have found that mastectomy and the loss they experienced has taught them how to shed other things that were no longer serving them in their life. Things like unrealistic societal expectations, relationships that weren’t working, or jobs that weren’t bringing joy.
Some who opted to forego reconstructive surgery found that they discovered a new style by going out and purchasing new clothes that fit their new body. Other women view their cancer diagnosis as a wake-up call and realize that life is precious and use that new view on life to shift how they approach every single day.
Learning how to reclaim your narrative like these women doesn’t happen overnight. But beginning to view your situation through a different lens can be a powerful tool for recovery and moving forward.
Listen in: Tune into our IG Live with Lindsey Baguio Gerhard for inspiration on navigating a mindset shift around cancer diagnosis.
Learn how to move your body again
Part of the recovery process is learning how to move your body safely, so you build strength and mobility. Like the body postpartum, things might move differently post-mastectomy or after cancer treatment. Symptoms of pain or discomfort might be stemming from unhealthy movement patterns that you developed after surgery.
If you can, work with a physical therapist or find an instructor or personal trainer who understands your situation. They can help guide you through appropriate exercises and modifications. Like all recovery, it’s important to be patient as your body learns how to move again.
But we know from talking to many of you that it’s not possible to afford or find time to go to more appointments, which is why we partnered with a corrective exercise specialist to bring you an online solution that you can do any time for free!
Learn more: Brilliantly Strong, a free corrective exercise program intended for women after breast surgery.
Identify foods that support your energy
In the fight against fatigue, weight gain, and recurrence, finding food you love that is also healthy and gives you energy will go a long way towards feeling your best. Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, try and focus on what you can add to your diet to support your energy and long-term wellness.
Take time for self-care
Self-care can feel like a luxury, but spending money and time investing in your health and wellbeing is critical to your overall health. Self-care looks different for everyone so whether it's a day at the spa, meditating, or going to bed a bit earlier, scheduling the time for it will help foster positive habits.
Listen in: Brilliantly Calm, self-love meditation with Sarah Dade
Speak to a professional
If you are struggling with grief, anxiety, depression, or relationship troubles, it's important to consult with your doctor or another medical care provider. A medical professional could help offer guidance, support, and a chance to talk through your emotions in a way you could never have on your own. There is no shame in asking for help.
Sometimes the path to recovery is not a path you can embark on your own. A professional familiar with breast cancer recovery is going to have experience guiding other pre/survivors through difficult times and could help guide you through it as well.