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Mastectomy 101: Surgical Drains & Tissue Expanders (10 Weeks Post Op)

Before my double mastectomy I found it super helpful to talk to other women who had undergone the same procedure. These ladies helped prepare me emotionally and physically for my surgery and also helped me adjust my recovery expectations. The advice varied from woman to woman but the one thing I heard consistently from everyone was how terrible the drains and tissue expanders are. And they were spot on.

So today I wanted to cover the drains and tissue expanders for those of you searching the internet for more information in preparation for surgery. Each doctor does their surgery a little bit different so I can only speak from my own experience. 


During my procedure, the surgical oncologist made an incision underneath the fold of my breasts and removed every bit of tissue (down to the dermis) in my chest. During this same time the reconstructive surgeon sewed in pockets of surgical mesh between my skin and chest muscle to hold tissue expanders. A breast tissue expander is an inflatable breast implant designed to stretch the skin and muscle to make room for a future, more permanent implant.

The reconstructive surgeon then sewed in 4 surgical drains. These drains consist of a small plastic reservoir bulb connected to about 4 feet of flexible drainage tubing. So I had 4 drains hanging out of my chest that were about 3 feet long each. Their purpose was to remove fluid from the surgical wound through mild suction. Opinions on how long the drains should stay in vary from doctor to doctor.


Several times a day the fluid in the drains has to be stripped, measured and recorded until I hit a certain number required for them to be removed. At first it was uncomfortable when Matt stripped my drains but thankfully that only lasted a few days. The hospital will likely give you a drain log to use to record your fluid. If not, I’ve created two versions you can download and print HERE.


There are several options for keeping your drains out of the way once you are released from the hospital. Tank tops, aprons, belts, lanyards, surgical bras and more, I tried them all!

Surgical Bra

I left the hospital with my drains attached to a surgical bra designed specifically for mastectomies. It was nice to have the drains clipped high enough so they weren’t in the way, but super awkward wearing them under a shirt in public because it feels like your announcing your double mastectomy to the world! The bra also applied a bit of pressure to my chest and could be itchy at times.

I am wearing an Amoena Post-Surgical Bra with Drain Management. However, since my surgery, Third Love has also come out with a surgical bra so now there’s another option too! Some hospitals will provide you with a surgical bra and some hospitals ask you to bring your own. Check with your doctor and hospital ahead of time!

Waist Apron

I got emotional when I received the sweetest set of aprons made by the volunteers at the hospital. The apron was my preferred drain holder when I went out and about although I had to be careful with the drain cords under my shirt, especially when I had my little ones in tow! You can decorate your own canvas waist apron or purchase a black apron if you want to be more incognito.

Post-Surgery Pocketed Camisole

The pocketed tank top was my second choice of drain wearing. I loved my camisole because it was super soft and comfortable and I could easily throw a cardigan over it to hide the drains.

I should also mentioned that I lived in leggings for awhile since they were easy to slip on and were comfortable enough to sleep in, run errands, etc.


As for showering, I clipped all of my drains to a lanyard.


During the surgery my doctor filled my expanders with 100 ccs of BLUE saline so I’d have at least a little bump to go home with. And at my 3 week post op appointment I got my very first fill and visited my doctor weekly for fills until I got to my desired size.

This was the most fascinating process EVER. First, the doctor has to locate the expander port by using a crazy magnetic device. Once he finds it he draws a dramatically large (in my opinion) “X” over it to mark the spot. Then he literally pokes my skin with an insanely thick needle (that I couldn’t feel at all) which is attached to a ginormous syringe and injects 60 ccs of saline into each side.

The magnet device they use to find the port in my expander. And here is a little diagram to show how exactly they get the syringe of saline into the expander.

The first few fills did not hurt at all. But as my nerves have began to grow back the fills become more uncomfortable and only one random fill put me in excruciating pain later that night. Before my appointments I took a muscle relaxer and Advil and when I get home I took my pain medications for the remainder of the day.

I just recently reached my desired size (yayyyyy!) so the doctor gave me one extra fill and scheduled me for my exchange surgery consultation in a few weeks. I have to wait 2 full months from my last fill to ensure the skin over my breasts and muscle have stretched enough before my second surgery to have the final implants put in which will likely be sometime in early March.

10 Weeks Post Op

I am currently 10 weeks post op and life has completely resumed to normal. I am back in the office, cooking, cleaning, chasing two under two and feeling great 93% of the time. However, I will say, the expanders still suck and my breasts are rock hard so my babies can’t get comfortable laying on me which makes me a little sad and I still have sharp chest pains when I sneeze, cough or overexert myself (which I tend to do too often). Sleeping is also pretty terrible but using a bed wedge system really helps. I am also in weekly physical therapy sessions to help stretch out my chest muscles. The expanders are profoundly uncomfortable BUT I’d still do this surgery again in a heart beat. Best decision of my life.

And that’s an overview on surgical drains and tissue expanders! More to come when I have information on my next and final surgery!

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Nancy Zerger

Sunday 10th of March 2024

I have breast cancer & almost finished with my chemo treatments. I am scheduled to have a bilateral mastectomy in April. I'm not a candidate for reconstructive surgery, so do you have any advice in my situation?


Sunday 2nd of October 2022

I didn’t see it but how long did it take to get to your desired size? I’m getting ready to see my reconstruction doctor in a month to go through the same procedure. Nervous and ready. 4 years without boobs. I’m ready to have them again. Plus my son is older and been working on my fitness.

Christine Collins

Wednesday 8th of December 2021

Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I am going in in two days to start my journey. This has been extremely helpful in what to expect.

Caley-Jade Rosenberg

Friday 8th of January 2016

You are INCREDIBLE sweet friend!! I am so proud of you and so inspired by you.Praise Jesus for a happy and healthy recovery x

Jaimee Granberry

Friday 8th of January 2016

I am so glad you have been sharing and detailing your experience. We have a long family history of breast cancer, but no one has done the BRAC gene testing yet. This is something I would definitely be interested in doing one day if need be- it's nice to read about a firsthand, personal experience. I'm so glad you're feeling back to normal!