I am not a doctor and therefore I am also not a professional so my answers are gleaned from my own experience - my interaction with my doctors, my friends and their own experiences, and of course my own chest and it's healing process.
What is recovery like?
Week 1: in bed, doing basically nothing. Very little pain in my chest. Lots of itchiness due to the bandages and healing.
Weeks 2-3: Able to get up and sit on the couch but still very limited activity. Walking slowly. Mostly remaining sedentary. Able to shower myself. As for pain: very minimal soreness. Itchiness continued but less severe. Being able to remove the bandages and shower helped the itchiness a lot.
Weeks 4-6: No pain. Began walking around a little more but not significantly so.
Week 7: I began exercising again. Keep reading if you'd like to know more about this process and its effects on my scars.
How long does it take for the scars to heal?
My scars have been steadily healing since I got surgery last March (2015). The wounds took about 2-4 weeks to close up completely but I remained inactive for as long as Dr. Garramone recommended which was 6 weeks.
What did you use on the scars?
Dr. Garramone recommended the use of Scarguard which I used for about 8-10 weeks after surgery. (Dr. Garramone recommends starting to use it about 2 weeks after surgery when the silicone strips fell off.)
After the Scarguard, I sporadically used an oil mixture originally designed for post-pardum scarring (Vitamin E, cocoa, etc.) that I spread along my scar and massaged the tissue. The massaging was probably the most important for me because I had a pretty good about of scar tissue build up over the first several months after surgery. Scar tissue can tack down the skin to the muscle and so it's good to break up those adhesions with manual manipulation of the tissue (massaging.) I'd also ask a physical therapist about this as I am not one. But do know that the scar tissue build up is normal and natural, so don't worry if that also happens to you. It usually dies down over time, as it has for me. Check out pictures below for visual representation.
For the most part, though, I used little to nothing on the scars after the recommended Scarguard and a little bit of oil to help soften the area. After five or so months post op, I did literally nothing. I just let them heal. Time is your best friend with scar healing.
When did you start exercising again?
Dr. Garramone strongly suggests that you do absolutely no exercise for 6 weeks after surgery. I followed his instructions. I did no exercise during this 6 weeks and I really, really would recommend that you don't either. The first week I was in bed, hanging out nearly the entire week. The second and third weeks I was able to get up and walk around more, but I did so just for necessary things. Weeks 4-6 I wandered around a bit and felt more able to move around, but I still took it easy and did no real exercise. At most, I walked under a mile to my therapy sessions. I did not swim and I did not lift during the first 6 weeks post op. On the first day of the 7th week post op, I began swimming and that week I began in the weight room, but very lightly.
I know that a lot of folks are anxious about this period of time when they cannot exercise, especially when they are athletes. And I absolutely get it -- I was preparing to begin training on the men's team for the first time in my life when I had to take the 6 week break. That was both terrifying and felt stupid. But I did it because this was about taking care of my body. And trading a mere 6 weeks in which I had to be sedentary for the rest of my active and very shirtless life seemed absolutely worth it to me.
Recovery was one of the times when I worked on my relationship with my body without being active. This was where I exercised my patience - which was not easy, of course not. People always ask me what's the number one piece of advice during recovery and I say that I hate saying it and I hated doing it, but it's 100% patience. I'd never taken more than a week off of exercise before my gap year from swimming and at first I thought it was going to destroy me. But it didn't. In fact, it made me such a more peaceful person, knowing I could handle myself and my grounding and my mental health without the constant crutch of swimming/exercise. It also made me a better athlete, because being good at sports and using your body requires that you take care of and REST your body. This was a great exercise in accepting and reveling in rest and proper body-care.
So, give your body the time. You are trading six (ish - do what your doctor says!) weeks of your life for the rest of your life shirtless. Do recovery right, don't mess it up because you're too anxious to get back out there. If you push it, you could get an infection, you could pop stitches or even bust open the incision get a hematoma, etc. Don't do that. Instead, use the time to learn more about your body and especially if you're struggling with not exercising, take the time to do some mental work there about that. I absolutely understand how exercise can be helpful for mental health, but I also think it's really, really important to know how to balance life without it sometimes.
Also, if you are concerned about stretching of the scars, I would hold off for a few more weeks -- perhaps 8-12 (depending on how safe you want to be) -- to prevent it. I didn't care a whole lot about the stretching because I knew my scars would always be visible (I live in a swim suit, it seems) and getting back into the pool before college began was more important to me. But like I said, if it's a priority for you not to stretch the scars, I'd hold off on anything that requires much hands-over-head movement for a few more weeks past what the doctor recommends.
Are you happy with your results?
How does it look? How have they faded?
My scars, as previously mentioned, have stretched and are thicker than most. But I love them. For several months post op, they appeared red and flared, but this faded with the years into a more natural skin-tone shade. I do not wish for them ever to fade away completely. They are a very important part of my story, written in bold across my chest, that I wear with immense pride.
See posts/video below for more:
You can also check out my YouTube top surgery updates.
For how to schedule surgery, what type of surgery I got, etc., see my other page on my top surgery.