In Recovery & Healthy Living

10 Pillows for Comfort During Breast Cancer Treatment and Recovery

Comfort pillows can bring tremendous comfort during breast cancer treatment despite their small size. It’s often your oncology nurse or people who have gone through breast cancer surgery themselves who can give you the best tips for coping with discomfort and the day-to-day challenges during treatment. One of those tips we should pass on is small support pillows.

Little support pillows are small, usually around 8 inches by 11 inches. They must be small enough to fit under your arm, and thin enough to place between your incision or surgical drains and your seat belt in the car. Once you are moving around after surgery, you’ll learn just how helpful they are. These pillows can be your constant companion at home, in the hospital, when you go shopping, and when you go to bed at night.

And as an added plus, it is a gift you can give to support a loved one with cancer. If you give a comfort pillow to a friend before her (or his) breast cancer surgery, she will be reminded that someone cares about her each step of her journey.

Seat Belt Pillow

After a lumpectomymastectomy, or breast reconstruction, your chest area will be tender anywhere you have incisions and sometimes in places you don’t. Use a small square or rectangular pillow to place between you and that upper-body seat belt. This comfort pillow will protect you from chafing and will distribute the pressure on your chest.

Add a Velcro loop on one side of the pillow if you want to secure it to the seat belt while you travel in the car. Make sure the pillow is thick enough to protect your incisions but thin enough so that it doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of your seat belt.

Armpit Comfort Pillow

Your lymph node status is important—and will be determined by a sentinel node biopsy or an axillary lymph node dissection. Those procedures, while critical to your diagnosis and staging, leave tender scars in an area where you have plenty of nerves. Your skin may be extra tender in the areas where the drainage tubes leave your body as well.

Having a little armpit comfort pillow between your arm and chest can ease the pain of axillary and mastectomy incisions. Use a rounded or rectangular pillow to cushion your armpit area. You can add a shoulder strap to this pillow so you don’t have to carry it all the time.

Armrest Pillow

Armrest pillows are often called chemo, bar, or bone pillows, and may be used in several ways. If you’re going to be sitting still for a long chemo infusion, it can ease your arm to rest it on one of these forearm pillows. It’s surprising how tender your arm may become resting on a firm armrest if you don’t have a chemotherapy port or PICC line and will be receiving treatment through an IV in your arm.

You could also use this pillow while lying down to support your arm over your chest. Elevating your arm while resting may ease lymphedema symptoms. Use a bar-shaped pillow under your neck while resting or traveling to ease muscle strain.

Breast Support Pillow

After a lumpectomy or breast reconstruction, your breast may feel very tender. Having breast surgery changes the balance of weight on your chest muscles. Until you adjust to your new architecture, you might like to use a crest-shaped pillow to support your breast or your reconstruction until the incisions heal and your muscles adjust. You can also use a crest-shaped pillow to comfort any underarm incisions.

When you are healed from your surgery, you may have periodic expansions in which varying amounts of fluid are introduced into your expanders. It’s normal to feel tender for a few days after each expansion, and some women find this to be the most annoying (and uncomfortable) part of reconstruction. If you will be having this done, don’t pack your pillows away too soon.

Pillow Between Breasts

When you’ve had any kind of breast surgery, your balance changes, and you can really feel that change on your chest. If you sleep on your side, the weight of your breasts on your chest muscles may feel different than it did before surgery.

You might find that tucking a small rectangular pillow between your reconstructed breast and your healthy breast while sleeping helps relieve the muscles as they expand for your breast implant. You’ll gradually get used to your new balance, but that little pillow sure helps you get through that transition.

Knee Pillow

Adding a little pillow between your knees as you sleep on your side can ease your lower back. When your back is comfortable, you’ll toss and turn less, and may get to sleep faster. Try using a square or rectangular comfort pillow for your knee pillow. Having some space between your knees might even make sleeping a little cooler when a hot flash hits.

As a final benefit, a knee pillow may take pressure off of your leg closest to the bed. We know that crossing your legs for a period can compress the veins in your leg raising the risk of blood clots. Depending on how you sleep, there’s a potential to compress veins in your leg as well.

Blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) that can sometimes break off and travel to the lungs (pulmonary emboli) aren’t uncommon. Added to that, cancer can raise the risk of blood clots on its own, with both surgery and chemotherapy being risk factors as well.

Neck Pillow

There are so many shapes for neck pillows. These come in bolsters, wraparounds, contoured, and even U-shaped pillows. Find or make one that works for you—a good neck pillow should make sitting and sleeping more comfortable for your neck and shoulders. If you’re going to be sitting for chemotherapy treatment for more than an hour or resting on your back for a good while, use a neck pillow to keep your head, neck, and shoulders properly lined up.

You will be especially glad you brought your neck pillow if you will be receiving Taxol (paclitaxel). Because medications need to be given to reduce the chance of an allergic reaction, and since the drug has to be infused slowly, these infusions usually take twice as long as treatments with Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide).

Lower Back Pillow

When you’re going to sit or ride for a while, having a little pillow between your waist and the chair will ease and may prevent back tension and muscle strain. When your lower back is properly aligned, you can avoid leg pain (sciatica) from sitting down for long periods.

Donut Pillow

Sit on a donut pillow if you have pain in your tailbone (coccyx), a not uncommon occurrence if you’ve been sitting in a recliner a lot since surgery. The donut hole allows the bottom of your spine to avoid pressure.

This little round hollowed out pillow is also good to use if you’re having hemorrhoid pain as a side effect of chemo-induced constipation. If you’ve never been constipated before, you might experience it now. The drugs often used to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting are wonderful, but constipation is almost a given.

Donut pillows are also good for hip pain and anal pain.

Wedge Pillow

Let’s say you’ve just come home from surgery and you must sleep on your back while managing surgical drains and dressings. Use a wedge pillow under your knees and lower legs to elevate them—this flattens your spine and makes you comfortable. Or place a wedge pillow under your head and shoulders, to keep you from turning onto your side.

A good wedge pillow may benefit people with asthma, acid reflux, and snoring problems.

Cancer Rehabilitation Can Help if Discomfort Persists

Comfort pillows can give you a much more positive experience after surgery, but some people will continue to have pain. In the past, this discomfort was largely ignored as surviving cancer was the main goal. With survival rates improving, the importance of survivorship is now being addressed. With that, researchers have learned that a large number of survivors continue to have symptoms related to their treatment long after those therapies are done.

If you note continued pain in your back or chest, or have any symptoms at all that are lasting, talk to your oncologist about cancer rehabilitation. Some physical therapists believe all women should see a physical therapist after breast cancer surgery based on a high frequency of dysfunction in back and chest muscles alone. Many cancer centers now have these programs (STAR programs) to help survivors find a new normal that doesn’t mean settling for issues that can be relieved.


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Article Courtesy of Verywell Health written by Pam Stephan

Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin

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