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When's the Right Time to Stop Pain Medicine After Cancer Surgery?


As a double mastectomy with reconstruction patient, I made the stupid decision to try to wean off pain medication only two weeks after cancer surgery.

As a double mastectomy with reconstruction patient, I made the stupid decision to try to wean off pain medication at two weeks after cancer surgery.

I was feeling stupid because, well, I guess I was. Over the course of life, I had many procedures and surgeries where I began to feel better after a few days and I certainly felt better from all of them by two weeks. I know it is always wise to complete a full course of antibiotics when they are prescribed and to not stop them early. Symptom management medications, including pain management medications, do not have that same requirement, plus we are taught, wisely, to be cautious of possible addition to narcotic pain medications. Unfortunately, that left me in a claustrophobic box of pain a couple of weeks ago. I stopped early because they are narcotics, not because my pain had strongly improved.

When I went to see my plastic surgeon to discuss my out-of-control pain, I desperately even asked about just undoing the reconstruction part to get some relief! He quickly said he would do it if I told him to, but he said that doing that at this point would not immediately and significantly reduce my pain. There went that fantasy. My amazing plastic surgeon had to gently but firmly coax me to climb out of the horrible box of pain where I had managed to corner myself.

Same song, same verse, it was not a unique story that my pain had not gotten quickly better. It turns out that I am really grateful not to be the special snowflake this time. A rational person thinks after a certain window of time that they should be feeling better. A double mastectomy with reconstruction, however, is not a minor surgery. In many cases, it can take a lot longer than a few days or a couple of weeks for the pain to significantly decrease. My wonderful plastic surgeon had to give me "the talk" (no, not that talk, lol). He said many of his patients get to tears of pain and frustration somewhere around ten days as they try to get off pain medication too quickly.

The plastic surgeon gently and firmly scolded me for trying to cut back on the pain medication too soon. He reminded me that I had truly had a big surgery and that I needed to allow more than two to three weeks to recover and get the pain under control. He provided more pain medication, a plan to follow, and sent me home.

For a little over a week after that, my pain was better managed, but I still did not feel I had turned (what I will call), the mythical corner to move toward less pain and more appreciable recovery. By then, I had heard about "turning the corner" at the Facebook mastectomy support groups and learned that it often tauntingly hovers out there somewhere between three to eight weeks after surgery.

Truly, I feel grateful and fortunate to have wonderful family and friends and doctors and support groups. Happily, things actually are finally starting to go better. I found my personal corner turning at about four weeks. Once again, I guess all of this is a reminder that I do not always get to be the control freak I that I want to be and that it is wise to bring all concerns promptly to our doctors.

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