Sleep After Surgery

Sleep After Mastectomy


The first several weeks of sleep following a mastectomy are brutal, there’s no sugarcoating it. You are asked by your surgeon to sleep on your back in an elevated position for weeks on end following surgery for the safety of your incisions and your fresh surgical site. Your chest structure is newly changed and there are these new little annoyances, JP drains, following your every movement. This level of sleep disturbance is usually only found on a long overnight flight in the middle seat of economy. No matter how hard you try, quality sleep just doesn’t happen.


In addition to the positioning challenge of sleeping upright, you also have new mental challenges to juggle. You have several new medications on board that are likely affecting your mental state in some way. Because of the drains and incisions, you may not be snuggling up next to your partner for the first time in many years. Maybe your loyal and lazy lap dog has been shunned to another room as a precaution to keep your surgical site safe. And last but certainly not least, you just had major surgery for a breast cancer diagnosis, and that alone is a lot to unpack.  


So, what can we do about these new challenges? Everyone from your doctors to your family and friends are telling you to rest, and ironically that is one of the biggest struggles in this immediate post-op phase. While there is no way to guarantee perfect sleeping habits in this chapter of healing, there are some adjustments that can be made to transform your post-operative sleep setup from the bleak middle seat economy restlessness that it is into a new safe sleeping oasis to get you through this phase of healing.  


The use of a recliner is ideal for mastectomy recovery! It provides a safe and supported space to achieve reasonably comfortable sleep while also forcing you to maintain the prescribed upright position of a roughly 30–45-degree angle. If you have a recliner…use it! If you don’t already own a recliner there are options out there to borrow (neighbors, friends, relatives), rent (Google search) or buy (online or in store) depending on your financial circumstance. A soft and plush style recliner (think Lay-Z-Boy) is preferable over a likely more trendy but less comfortable option.


After obtaining, the next step is deciding where to set up your resting space for the next few weeks. The recliner should be unpacked in your home and set up for use before surgery. Coming home to a prepared resting space is key! The recliner can be placed ANYWHERE. Despite popular opinion, it does not have to live in your living room. Maybe it functions better in the little sitting room right off your kitchen that happens to be next to your convenient bathroom, excellent! Whatever space is going to work for you is best.


Next, adding cushioning of some kind to the recliner will elevate the comfort level exponentially. Surgical foam wedges, maternity pillows, surgical post-op pillows, or even the extra pillows from your guest bedroom work great- pile them on! Cocoon yourself in with your arms supported to make sleeping on your back at an inclined position pretty darn tolerable. Once cocooned, grab a few light layers of blankets to pile on top so you can easily add and subtract layers of heat through the night as needed.


Finally, prepare your new space with easy access to absolutely everything you might want or need. A three teared rolling cart is perfect for this! Think items like a water bottle, TV remote, cell phone and extra length phone charger, tissues, a tiny fan, a little plant that brings you joy, scheduled medications, a good book, some easy snacks, the iPad—these are all perfect to keep at your fingertips for maximum convenience and comfort or when sleep just isn’t coming easy. 


For those inevitable moments when you are wide awake riddled with a busy mind, I recommend some light and positive entertainment to pass the time. My personal favorite for times like this is a Netflix binge of The Great British Baking Show. If you’ve seen it, watch it again! If you haven’t, get ready for a smashing good time! If a TV binge is not filling your cup try and deep dive in to a good book of your choice. Lastly, never underestimate the power of retail therapy. Pick up that iPad and knock out your birthday or holiday shopping.


My last recommendation for sleep after mastectomy is to set reasonable expectations. Setting the expectation with yourself ahead of time that this season of recovery won’t be the best sleep you’ve ever had in your life and accepting that ahead of time is a good idea. This can help ease anxieties when sleep isn’t coming easy and foster positive self-talk and grace during this difficult time.


This new sleeping situation is temporary but taking these simple steps ahead of time to establish a comfortable and safe sleeping space will make all the difference in those first few weeks after surgery. You’ve got this!

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