What to pack for a mastectomy

Happy Magazine Reader Bríd O’Connor from County Kerry has contributed the following piece on what to pack in your hospital bag for a mastectomy.

I had a bilateral mastectomy just over three weeks ago. As with all operations, they are tailored specifically to your individual needs and each one of us will have a different experience, which your wonderful medical team will guide you safely through. After my experience, I wanted to contribute something to Happy Magazine and share some helpful, non-medical, practical tips and tricks for anyone who is preparing for an upcoming mastectomy surgery of their own.

What to pack for a mastectomy

  • Button-up pyjamas After surgery, your arm mobility will be limited, so button-up pyjamas are essential. Your surgeon and nurses will be monitoring and checking your surgery wound for infection every couple of hours, especially in the first few days, so having an easily removable top is therefore best. A comfortable, light fabric is key, you don’t want to overheat or sweat profusely close to your surgical site. I’d recommend a cotton or soft jersey style and would give any woolly, silk or fluffy PJ’s a wide berth. If you find some nightwear that have pockets, this is a bonus, as they can be a great asset in helping carry your Pico dressing, pain barrels or drains (more on that below).
  • Slippers/comfortable slip-on shoes I don’t trust slippers, even the first four letters should be a clue as to why I feel they’re a hazard. What I decided to bring was a pair of soft sprung, Skecher-like shoes that I bought in Dunnes for €10.00 (similar are also available in Penneys). I found they gave me more balance and a better sense of security on days I wanted to wander around the wards or go for a short walk to the shop. No laces and a pliable heel meant I could wiggle my ankle into position without having to bend or use my hands. After the operation, you will be unsteady on your feet, so if you do bring slippers, ensure the soles are robust and solid.
  • Socks (fluffy, thermal, warm) You will have to wear the very glamorous compression socks in hospital until you’re being discharged, so I packed several pairs of thermal socks to wear over to keep my toes toasty.
  • Dressing gown I bought a short, light waffle-style dressing gown. It had two pockets in the front – another bonus as the drains fit neatly into them. I do love my fluffy dressing gown but the last thing you need is a heavier gown, weighing down your already tender shoulders and body (I layered up with a soft zip-up fleece on days there was a chill).
  • Wash bag A large sponge and face cloth, shower gel, toothpaste and toothbrush, ear plugs, hair brush (I didn’t need one, as I am post-chemo and still resemble a POW), dry shampoo if you still have your locks, you will be unable to wash your hair, as your arm mobility will be limited. A nice cleanser, moisturiser/face oil. I also packed a face mist, hand and body cream and a good lip balm. Post-surgery, your skin will be dehydrated and dry so pack yourself a few nice treats, I found applying the lotions and potions had a lovely holistic and therapeutic effect.
  • Electric toothbrush This will save your arms having to do most of the work.
  • Purse of coins My mom gave me a money bag of €2.00/€1.00 coins. They were so handy for when the shop trolley came to visit each day (Mammies, they’re mighty! We may be adults but in their eyes we’re still their child, let them do, if you’re lucky to still have them, whatever they can for you, it benefits everyone).
  • Drain solutions After surgery you will have drains, pain barrels and a Pico dressing attached to you. They will be your best friends, as they keep the pain at bay, but they can be awkward and hinder your mobility. The nurse will give you two pins and plastic bags to clip the lot in, however, I packed two lanyards and hooked my drains from them instead (lanyards hang low over the tummy, it was ideal for me as they didn’t interfere with the site of my surgery but if you’re having a diep flap surgery you can get Drain Dollies that are light, over-the-shoulder bags to keep your drains in. As previously mentioned, pockets in PJ’s and dressing gowns are a bonus here too.
  • Entertainment Netflix on your phone, laptop/tablet or portable DVD player, and headphones. A fully-charged Kindle, a puzzle book, magazines… anything that will occupy your day. I brought a good few books, but only read one, my brain and body were too tired and fuzzy. I managed to read The importance of being Ashling, by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – it was light-hearted, funny and I skitted my way through it, exactly the type of book I needed and would recommend for post-recovery.
  • Extra-long phone charger This is a MUST, reaching and stretching is out of the question. The long lead will save you over-extending or accidentally reaching over for your phone unnecessarily. The phone is a great gadget to have but it’s a double-edged sword, lovely for the supportive messages and calls but self-care here is very important. You need to rest and recuperate, nobody expects an instant reply, they are just letting you know they are thinking of you. Your significant other will be inundated, and like a good press secretary, they will field most of the enquiries and important calls for you.
  • Jen’s Friends – Free Mastectomy Pillows A UK-based non-profit project run by three friends, Jen, Joolz and Alison. They provide free pillows in beautiful bright colours that provide great comfort and protection during your recovery period. The pillow is designed to be placed under the arm easing pain from your surgical incision and helping to reduce any swelling. They also act as a wonderful cushioning barrier between you and the dreaded seatbelt in the car for your journey home. Find them on Facebook or email jensfriends@hotmail.com
  • My secret power As a history teacher, I love autobiographies. In Nelson Mandela’s Long walk to freedom, in which he reflects on his incarceration on Robben Island, he noted that, in order to survive mentally he would recite the poem Invictus by Willian Earnest Henley daily to inspire and uplift himself and his fellow inmates. It would give him the strength to stand, when all he wanted to do was lay down. I remembered to bring this poem with me in my hospital bag, so when I felt deflated, I too read Invictus. The poem became part of my morning and evening mantra and for me, the most valuable item in my hospital kit. Composed by Henley during his isolation as a consequence of early, life-threatening battles with tuberculosis; while he recovered in hospital, the word Invictus translates from Latin as Unconquered. On days which were difficult, I would reiterate the poem tirelessly. I gained enormous strength from it. It reaffirmed and instilled that I too was undefeated and thankful for whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soulYour medical team will look after your body but you’re the captain of your own soul. Find a secret power, individual to your needs, something that reaffirms to you the belief that you too are, Unbowed, Unconquerable and Undefeated!
  • For visiting kids – For any women with children, I knew this week would be the longest and loneliness week of my life. I reminded myself daily that this was only temporary, and the surgery was the necessary evil to secure my future with them. My wonderful husband played a blinder and kept the show on the road. He would Facetime me every morning before the school run and each evening before their bedtime. This hurt more than the surgery, but it focused me on getting strong and recovered, so I could get back home to them well. When they visited me on the first weekend after surgery, I had packed a few surprises in my case for them. This proved to be a big hit but also a great diversionary tactic. They were so delighted and distracted, their focus was transferred off me and the clinical hospital environment and re-diverted onto their new shiny gadgets.
  • Other suggestions A post-mastectomy bra (speak to your Breast Care Nurse about what is most appropriate), drinks (bottles of water, cordial, herbal tea bags) and snacks.

Finally, good luck… You’ve got this!

Bríd O’Connor lives in Kerry with her husband Kevin and their two children. She was diagnosed on 5 February 2018 at age 40 with Her 2 Triple Positive breast cancer. She has had two lumpectomies, 6 rounds of TCH chemotherapy and is currently recovering from a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. She will continue to receive Herceptin up until next summer. Bríd is surrounded by warrior women – her mom, sister, aunts and cousins are all battling breast cancer at various stages too.

Thank you so much Bríd for sharing this with us and we wish you a speedy recovery.  

We’ve included the Invictus poem which inspired Bríd so much during her recovery and a handy checklist of her suggested hospital bag items below – please feel free to save them to your phones/laptops and we hope you find them helpful! If you’ve already had a mastectomy and have any other suggestions of useful items to pack, please let us know in the comments below.

For even more suggestions of what to pack for a mastectomy, check out this page from Ticking Off Breast Cancer. 

4 Comments

  1. Mary Charlotte
    November 19, 2018 / 1:10 pm

    Great tips. Had all those essential items in my hospital bag back in May. I would also recommend a travel pack of wate wipes (baby section in tesco) great for keeping refreshed throughout the day), a sleep eye mask (the ward was never dark enough for me at night 😁), had a number of meditations on my ipod which got me through the 5 days in hospital. I too would highly recommend Jen’s Friends mastectomy pillows, they are a must have for comfort, was so glad I came across them before my op.

  2. Niamh
    November 20, 2018 / 11:15 pm

    Wonderful inspurational words and practical advice Bríd. Thank you so much for sharing and the very best.of luck with everything on your journey. X

  3. Cait
    November 21, 2018 / 1:19 am

    Great tips. I also suggest a wide scarf which u can wrap around your shoulders/breast area to cover up especially if u only had one breast removed as I did apr 16. U won’t b able to wear bra with prosthetic for few days due to pain. Good luck Brid and all fighting this battle

  4. November 21, 2018 / 9:49 am

    An eye mask too. I found nurses popping in during the night put the lamp on to check on the drains, it was quite disturbing on my recovery sleep but when I put the eye mask on I barely noticed them and slept much better.

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