Are you wondering what it’s like sleeping with tissue expanders after a mastectomy?
After I was diagnosed at age 36, I started my treatment journey with a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery.
In this post, I will talk more about the process of breast reconstruction including my experience with tissue expanders, a term I had never heard prior to having breast cancer.
- Tissue Expanders after Mastectomy
- What are tissue expanders?
- Cc’s in Tissue Expanders
- Uncomfortable Pain
- Sleeping with Tissue Expanders
- Deflation before Radiation
- Exchange Surgery
- Tissue Expanders vs Implants
Tissue Expanders after Mastectomy
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here about my breast cancer diagnosis because I already wrote a whole post about it! I will say that I never really struggled with the idea of a bilateral mastectomy.
Right after hearing the radiologist say he was 95% certain I had breast cancer, I decided I wanted both boobs completely removed. Quite frankly I was pissed at them! I felt like my breasts had deceived me, and I no longer wanted them anywhere near me.
In the blur of events that started with my ultrasound and then my biopsy, I remember trying to think positively. I told myself that after having two kids, I could really use some new boobs.
I kept thinking it wouldn’t be that bad. My surgeon would remove my gross cancer boobs, and I would gain some perky new friends. No big deal. Well, unfortunately it’s not that easy.
At my initial consultation with my plastic surgeon, he brought up the term tissue expanders.
What are tissue expanders?
Tissue expanders are breast implants that can be inflated while they are in your chest. The purpose of a tissue expander is to stretch your skin to prepare it for an actual breast implant.
Prior to having breast cancer, I naively thought a bilateral mastectomy consisted of removing old boobs and putting in new “permanent” implants. End of story.
Sadly, that is not the way it works….at least in my situation.
Instead, my timeline for new boobs was as follows:
- September 2018: Double mastectomy/insert tissue expanders
- Octobober-April: Inflate the tissue expanders little by little each week while going through chemo
- May: Remove half of the saline from each tissue expander for radiation therapy
- July: Re-fill the tissue expanders after completing radiation
- May 2020: Exchange surgery where tissue expanders are replaced with actual implants
- Somewhere down the road: tattoo 3D nipples
Cc’s in Tissue Expanders
In September of 2018, I had a bilateral mastectomy. During this surgery, my plastic surgeon put tissue expanders in my chest in place of my breast tissue.
After giving me a couple weeks to recover from the surgery, my plastic surgeon then began filling the expanders little by little.
Each week he would add a little more saline to inflate the expanders….kind of like blowing up a balloon.
This process was not the most comfortable; although, I am a big baby and have heard other women say it didn’t phase them at all.
The actual filling of the tissue expander didn’t hurt. My doctor sprayed numbing spray on the access site before placing the needle in.
My chest still has very little feeling from the mastectomy, so I didn’t really feel anything when the expanders were being inflated.
However, after the tissue expanders were filled, I found the stretching of my skin to be painful.
I got to the point where I allowed my plastic surgeon to insert only 20 cc’s at each appointment. Before that, I was receiving closer to 50 cc’s, and my skin would feel incredibly sunburned for days and days.
Once my doctor reduced the amount he inflated, I didn’t have the sunburned feeling anymore.
Tissue expanders don’t feel great, but the good news is you eventually get pretty used to them.
Each time my expanders were filled, I noticed some minor back pain. This was due to me having to readjust my posture for the new weight on my chest.
My biggest complaint with the tissue expanders is the rib pain that I felt.
The ribs that surround the tissue expanders (on both sides of my chest) felt sore and bruised constantly.
My doctor even ordered an X-ray to see if one of them could be fractured. Thankfully the X-ray was clear, and he determined the expanders were probably just digging into my ribs.
I had my tissue expander exchange surgery about four months ago, and I’m happy to report that my rib pain is so much better!
If I press in certain spots along the underside of my implants, I do still feel like they are bruised. However, the pain is no where near as bothersome as it once was.
Sleeping with Tissue Expanders
If you like sleeping on your back, you will have no issue sleeping with tissue expanders.
It is also possible to sleep on your side. Although, my rib pain gets worse if I sleep on my side.
I think it’s because side sleeping puts pressure on the side of the expander, which then puts pressure on my ribs.
Sleeping on your stomach would be incredibly uncomfortable because the tissue expanders would be pressed into your rib cage.
Once you heal from your mastectomy, you will be able to determine what is comfortable for you.
I find that sleeping on my back is the safest, but I can’t sleep like that all night.
So, I will try to rotate onto each side for a short period of time throughout the night. I don’t really feel like the tissue expanders hinder the sleeping process for me.
Your body will just tell you what’s comfortable and you adapt to it.
Deflation before Radiation
My radiation oncologist requested that my plastic surgeon reduce the size of my tissue expanders before radiation began.
This is because they were soooo perky that she was afraid they would be in the way of the radiation beam.
Luckily, it’s super easy to remove saline from the expanders.
I believe if you do proton therapy rather than traditional radiation you have to completely remove the tissue expanders though.
Exchange Surgery Recovery
Because I ended up needing radiation, I had to wear my tissue expanders longer.
It is my understanding that radiated skin is tighter and doesn’t heal as well. Therefore, my plastic surgeon wanted me to wait at least six months before completing the tissue expander exchange surgery.
After six months, my doctor felt like I needed a bit more time because my radiated breast was REALLY tight.
He finally cleared me for surgery eight months after I completed radiation. The pandemic hit and the country began to shut down at this time; though, and my “elective” surgery was ultimately canceled.
Two months later, in May 2020, I was able to have my tissue expanders removed and replaced with breast implants.
This was an outpatient surgery, and it lasted about four hours total.
Tissue Expanders vs Implants
Recovery from tissue expander exchange surgery is A BREEZE compared to a mastectomy.
When I went home after surgery, I felt pretty groggy but I felt almost no pain whatsoever. I was so relieved and happy to have soft implants finally in my breasts. You can immediately feel a huge difference, and it’s such a relief!
The day after surgery was when I felt the worst. My incision sites on both breasts stung pretty badly. I took my prescribed pain medication on this day, but then I didn’t need it any more after that.
**I am going to give you the most random piece of advice now, but it was a life changer for me…..buy maxi pads for this surgery!!!!!**
My nurse mentioned putting a maxi pad under each breast to help any oozing. I didn’t really have any oozing; however, the pads did WONDERS for the incision pain.
My post surgery bra constantly rubbed against the incision sites making them so uncomfortable.
The maxi pads kept the garments from rubbing against my cuts, and I never had another problem with pain!
For two years, I went through surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and (still) hormone therapy.
My tissue expanders were with me through it all. They aren’t the most comfortable things to have attached to your chest, but luckily they are temporary!
How have you handled sleeping with tissue expanders?
Comment below to share your experiences!
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