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Breast Mastectomy Complications

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Breast cancer often is treated by surgical techniques. Mastectomy, a common surgical procedure to treat breast cancer, involves removing the breast tumor and surrounding healthy tissue to prevent cancer recurrence. There are a several types of masctectomy procedures: milder surgeries may leave the overlying skin, areola and nipple intact to allow for breast reconstruction surgery, while other forms of mastectomy may remove the entire breast, overlying skin and some of the chest muscles. A number of complications can arise as a result of mastectomy, with the severity of the complications usually depending on the type of mastectomy performed.

Nerve Damage

During mastectomy, the surgeon must cut the skin and cut away damaged tissue, which will sever nerves in and around the breast. Following surgery, patients will experience numb skin around the incision site. According to the University of Florida, the cut nerves can also cause shooting pains soon after surgery, and dull aching or burning pains for up to a year. The nerve pain will subside with time, and any pain can be treated with medication in the interim.

The nervous system has a limited ability to repair itself following damage, and the numbness in the skin may persist for long after surgery.

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Pain and Stiffness

Many women who have undergone more aggressive mastectomy, involving the removal of lymph nodes, may experience pain and stiffness of the shoulder and chest following surgery. Penn State Hershey reports that many women experience stabbing pains following surgery. This is due to damage in the area under the arm, which may interrupt normal muscle and nerve functioning in the shoulder, arm and chest.

Patients who have undergone mastectomy may also experience what is called phantom pain, that is pain that feels like it is in the breast even though the tissue has been removed. This will eventually diminish as the pain detection networks within the brain adapt following surgery.


Lymphedema, the buildup of lymph fluid around the breast and in the arm, often occurs in women who have undergone mastectomy in which the lymph nodes surrounding the breast were removed. The lymph nodes normally would have helped circulate the fluid. In their absence, the fluid accumulates and causes swelling of the arm and other affected tissues.

According to the University of Virginia, a moderate amount of lymphedema can be expected immediately following surgery as the body adapts to the removal of lymph tissue. Some patients may experience painful lymphedema four to six weeks postoperatively, although most cases of lymphedema are painless and occur up to two years after surgery. The University of Virginia reports that exercising and following a well-balanced diet can help prevent lymphedema.

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author image Sylvie Tremblay, MSc
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Based in Ontario, Canada, Tremblay is an experienced journalist and blogger specializing in nutrition, fitness, lifestyle, health and biotechnology, as well as real estate, agriculture and clean tech.
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