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I’m not sure if there is any way to really prepare for mastectomy surgery. There’s so much you don’t know, can’t know when you go in for such a procedure. One thing you can count on, however, is the fact that you will probably go home with at least one drain snaking its way out of your body.

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Before my surgery, I read about drains and the fact that I would need special pockets inside my shirt to carry such things. I did a little research, but I wasn’t really prepared for the truth. Upon waking from surgery, I found that four Jackson Pratt drains were attached to my body, two on each side of my removed breasts/inserted tissue expanders. After my lat flap reconstruction surgery, I had three drains on just my left side. Both times, it was so odd to see plastic tubing trailing from under my arms and even weirder to see these bulbish things at the end slowly filling with red liquid gunk.

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JP drains are used to help drain bodily fluid from surgical sites. The bulb can be folded in half and capped, which allows fluids to be sucked out of the body, through the tube, and into the bulb. The drains have to be “stripped” several times per day at first. This means that you or your caregiver–probably your caregiver since you can’t really use your arms–must slowly squeeze the tube from where it pokes out of the body down to the bulb, thereby coaxing as much ick out as possible. Then you measure the amount of fluid and enter it into a little spreadsheet. Dealing with drains never rally gets easy, but it can get funny. I’m sure you can imagine the jokes from my husband:
“Doctor’s orders–strip baby!”
“Kendra, time to strip…strip it all.”
“This isn’t what I meant when I wished for you to start stripping every day.”

Since these tubes and grenade shapes are hanging from your body, you need a way to carry them around once you’re mobile. When I went in for the mastectomy surgery, I had already purchased a clever little package of stick-on pockets from Pink Pockets. They are soft, flannel squares that you can stick inside your clothing, creating your own recovery garment. This product is created by Diane LeBleu, herself a breast cancer survivor. Brilliant!

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After reconstruction surgery, I was offered a Heal in Comfort shirt by the Breast Cancer Resource Center. This shirt is perfect for recovery! Breathable fabric, velcro front for easy opening, sewn-in pockets, and a sassy little logo on the front.

This shirt is also designed by a breast cancer survivor, Cherie Mathews, who created it to “help women heal in comfort and dignity after surgery in their battle against breast cancer”.

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From the Heal in Comfort About page: Standard post-operative instructions call for “loose-fitting clothing”, which had no accommodations for her drain tubes and limited arm movement. Her situation made her angry — “I didn’t have the right equipment to go home in, if a sprained elbow gets a sling to heal in why isn’t there helpful equipment to heal in after a mastectomy?”

I love this. She encountered a big problem, but rather than lament and complain about it, she did something proactive! That’s smart.

In addition to a stripping routine and special clothing, you will need a lanyard and some safety pins. You might be recently surgurized, hairless from chemo, or drugged up on pain meds, but that’s no excuse for being a dirty birdy. Showering with drains is not possible without some kind of holder–you can’t possibly juggle the drains with soapy hands. I put an old lanyard around my neck and pinned the drains to it, thereby creating a surgically chic necklace.

Drains suck. They really suck (seriously…they suck extra fluid out of your body). When you get them removed–which happens during a quick office visit–there is a feeling of great freedom. It’s weird when they come out though. I swear my last drain was somehow coiled all the way down to my legs. Dr. K kept pulling and pulling, reminiscent of that handkerchief trick.

The most grown-up way to cope with your drains is to view them as one step closer to healing, a minor inconvenience as you proceed along the highway to health. The other way to cope with drains is to loathe them with all of your being, moaning in pain every time the stupid tube is touched in the littlest way. Whatever way you choose to cope, you need a friend to help you strip, some pockets in your shirt, and a lanyard.