There are several potential complications of surgery to look out for

Pain and discomfort

Surgery is likely to cause some pain or discomfort. This can go on for weeks, months or years but should decrease with time. Pain can vary from person to person but in general, the more extensive your surgery, the more discomfort you’ll encounter. It may take the form of an occasional sharp, darting sensation.

Any pain or discomfort you experience can usually be managed by painkillers. If you find the pain particularly severe, contact your GP or breast care team who can recommend ways of managing it.

You may find that surgery to the armpit causes more discomfort than breast surgery. Your arm and shoulder are likely to feel sore and you will probably not be able to move your arm fully at first. You may be offered treatment by a physiotherapist, or your breast care team will give you an exercise programme to get your arm and shoulder movement back to normal or near normal. It is important to do the exercises even if your arm is moving well initially, especially if you are going to have radiotherapy.

Infection

It takes a few weeks for wounds to heal after surgery and during this time there is a risk of the area becoming infected. It’s important that any infection is treated promptly, to prevent it causing problems with the wound healing and also to prevent you becoming unwell.

Your surgeon and breast care nurse will let you know how to reduce the risk of the area becoming infected and will tell you what signs to look out for. These include fluid leaking from the wound, the wound becoming more painful, swollen, warm or red, or feeling unwell with a fever. Infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics.

Seroma

After your surgery, fluid may collect in your breast or armpit and cause swelling. This is known as seroma.

Seroma is not a serious problem but it may cause discomfort or restrict your arm movement. It usually gets better on its own over time, but sometimes the fluid will need to be removed using a needle and syringe (known as aspiration). This simple procedure is usually performed by a nurse and should not be painful. After aspiration, the fluid may come back again, in which case the procedure may need to be repeated a few times.

Let your breast care nurse or surgeon know if you think you have a seroma and it is causing you difficulty.

Lymphoedema

After your surgery, you may develop long-term swelling of your arm, hand, breast, chest and/or armpit known as lymphoedema. This can be uncomfortable and restrict your arm movement, and may increase your risk of getting skin infections.

Lymphoedema can develop soon after treatment but may take months or years. You are more likely to develop lymphoedema if you have had surgery or radiotherapy to the armpit. However, there are several things you can do to reduce your risk of lymphoedema, such as maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding damage to your skin, for example from scratches or sunburn. Your breast care team can explain these to you in more detail.

Lymphoedema cannot be cured, but the swelling can usually be reduced and controlled if it is managed effectively. If you notice any arm or shoulder swelling, let your breast care team or GP know right away, as the earlier lymphoedema treatment is started, the better the chance of controlling it.

Treatment for lymphoedema usually involves a combination of exercise, skincare, specialist massage, and/or tight-fitting garments such as sleeves or bandages. Your breast care team can sometimes provide these treatments, or they may refer you to a lymphoedema specialist. If you have mild lymphoedema symptoms, you should be given the information and support you need to manage your condition yourself.

Need more information?

Breast Cancer Care has information on exercises to perform after your surgery.

You can find information on managing lymphoedema at Breast Cancer Care and The Lymphoedema Support Network.

Information Standard

Information last reviewed: November 2017

Next review due: November 2020

Breast Cancer Now's health information is covered by NHS England's Information Standard quality mark. Find out how this resource was developed.