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Mastectomy - Complications of a mastectomy

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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In most cases, recovery from a mastectomy is straightforward and without complications.

It is normal to experience certain side effects, such as short-term pain and swelling of the tissue over your chest wall. You will also have a scar.

You may have swelling at the site of your operation as a result of body fluid collecting underneath the skin. This is called seroma. It often goes away without treatment, although it may sometimes need to be drained with a needle and syringe. You should speak to your surgeon or breast care nurse if you think that you are developing seroma.

If you have had the lymph nodes removed under your arm, you may experience numbness and tingling around this area. This often goes away as the area heals, but it is permanent in some cases. There is also a small chance that any pain you experience after a mastectomy will be long-lasting.

Other complications include infection and a condition called lymphoedema (a side effect of mastectomies that involve the armpit). Speak to your specialist or breast care nurse immediately if you think that you may be experiencing any of the symptoms described below.

Wound infection

Your wound may be infected if the wound site:

  • becomes red
  • becomes more painful and swollen (inflamed)
  • is leaking fluid (discharge)

This can be treated with antibiotics.

Lymphoedema

If you have some lymph nodes removed, you are more at risk of developing a condition called lymphoedema. This usually starts some time after surgery, but it can also develop many months or years later.

Lymphoedema is a build-up of fluid in the arm that causes swelling, pain and tenderness in your arm and hand.

Your nurse will tell you how to prevent lymphoedema using appropriate skincare techniques and exercises. If it occurs, lymphoedema can be controlled with early treatment in a specialised lymphoedema clinic.

Read more about lymphoedema, including the symptoms, and how it is diagnosed and treated. 

Medical Review: December 18, 2012
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