Category Archives: Mastectomy

If your hand is swelling, take off your ring.

What is your worst fear post-cancer?  This is an easy one.  Of course 99.9% of us would say reoccurrence.  But beside cancer coming back, which of course trumps everything else, is this:

Life Debilitating Issues

Very quickly most women accept, but don’t talk about, the number one fear.  Because most of us don’t really have a choice.  That fear would be losing any sensation in our breasts.  Now granted, we don’t need breast sensation for everyday life, but it certainly is debilitating when it comes to our sex life for sure.

The second fear, of course I’m assuming this because this would be my fear, and that is lymphedema.  Nothing made me more scared pre-mastectomy than seeing pictures and hearing horror stories of lymphedema.  I’ve always been crazy scared of life being debilitating post-cancer.

So a few months ago, one week post-surgery, I had just finished painting my daughters room, when I realized my hand was swollen.  Eek!  I immediately started crying to Jeremy.  You all think I’m really strong but really I’m a big’ol woos. 

I'm showing this picture because this is the one I sent to my plastic surgeon. His first response. Take off the rings. It takes a Harvard education to realize you should TAKE OFF YOUR RINGS WHEN YOUR HAND IS SWELLING...LOL!

There’s a really long story here about me freaking out, and how poorly I handle a little swelling.  But you might fall asleep.  I did learn something through it that I’ll share with you:

A.  Remain calm.  If you’ve never had swelling before, chances are it will resolve itself.

B.  Wrap the swelling and elevate.  I put my compression sleeve on because that is the only thing I’d been given.  It did nothing for the swelling in my hand.  Your local drugstore has tape that sticks a little when you wrap it.  You can unwrap it and re-wrap it.  So wrap in so it’s snug but not too tight.

C.  See your family doctor.  Mine was concerned it might be an infection so he prescribed antibiotic.  But a family doctor can also refer you to physical therapy or a lymphedema specialist. 

D.  Be purposeful about getting that referral.  Here’s why:

For a year or so I’ve had reoccurring pain in my hands.  Both sides.  It felt like the skin hurt on the back of my hands and lower arms and then under my armpits.  I let it go because any time I mentioned it, no one seemed to know what it was.  I started to think it was just something I should learn to live with, after all “I had mastectomies, right.”  I just figured it was the way it was.  I couldn’t possibly hope to be pain-free, right?

Wrong!

That is terribly wrong think’in.  Don’t live with pain.  Haven’t I always said you need to be your own advocate?  Why don’t I take my own advice?  The pain in my arm was probably a sign of circulation issues, even if no one else had experienced that pain.  My hand swelled because it was tired of being ignored.  Another symptom I had was numbness and tingling in my hands….again, just thought I needed to learn to live with it.

I started physical therapy for “thoracic outlet syndrome” almost 6 weeks ago and I haven’t had pain or swelling since.  We’re still working on the numbness.  I can’t tell you what a relief it has been to be pain-free.  Some of the things she’s working on with me is posture.  Without a double mastectomy we have poor posture, but women who have had mastectomies or breast work tend to try to hide it by bad posture.  I’m learning to stand up straight, and who knew I had muscles in my back that needed to be strengthened!

So the moral of this story is: don’t live with pain ladies.  Seek help. 

Oh….and take off your ring if your hand swells!

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My Belly/Breast Cast. Seriously.

This story begins long ago, before cancer, when I was pregnant for Elijah.   Some of you might know that I loved childbirth.  Crazy, I know, but I did.  I wasn’t overly fond of pregnancy, especially the first and last trimester, so I suppose you might ask why I liked having babies?  It was the birth, all about the birth.  (I enjoy quick, extremely painful things, not drawn out low-grade pain. 

But I loved the miracle of birth.  Every one of my children was born naturally, and my last baby, Elijah was born at home during a cold January night.  Totally planned with a certified midwife.  It was beautiful. 

So as I was preparing to give birth to Elijah, it occurred to me that this was my last pregnancy and I should do something to remember it.  I had heard about belly casting, but always thought it would be expensive.  But I started reading about it and realized I could go and get paper mache materials at Michael’s and Jeremy could help me do it.  Actually, Charis and Meleah helped too.   A decision was made that we would do my belly and my breasts.  A decision I’m actually thankful for now.  Jeremy wrapped me in plastic wrap.  Something he’s always secretly wanted to do.  And the paper mache-ing began.  I remember it being a night of laughter and fun.  Me, 9 months pregnant, wrapped in paper mache goo.  And then I had to wait for it to dry….lol!

I didn’t realize how glad I would be to have that belly/breast cast. 

So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and we knew I was headed for a double mastectomy, my sister said….”maybe you should make a cast of your breasts.”  I remember thinking for a moment about that thought…..but then remembered I had my pregnancy cast buried in the basement and cried “I already have one!”

So there it’s been, down in the basement waiting for me to pull it out, dust it off and do something with it.

But WHAT should I do with it?

I remember looking at pictures on-line of women who decorated their belly cast thinking….”I have to come up with something cool.” 

And then the second question now is “where do you put something like a belly cast with breasts?”

I mean c’mon people….even YOU would feel a little weird if I invited you over for dinner, and there, displayed over the dining room table was my belly/breast cast, of which I have neither anymore.  Ummmm…..awkward.  I’m pretty sure you would either bust out laughing or try not to look at it.  The question is, which would you be….lol!

So what do I do with it?

Here's the first thing I did with my belly cast. I put my sweet little baby Elijah back in it for a photo shoot.

Maybe I should coat it in outdoor paint and make it a lawn ornament....for the back yard of coarse...lol!

Maybe I could make i t in to a bird bath. I think I've read "Once Upon a Potty" one too many times.

Maybe I could just wear it around for the fun of it. I think my plastic surgeon should see this, no wonder my belly was so flabby. I was HUGE!

I really want to do something with my belly.  I joke about it, and it is kind of funny that I have this belly cast, but now that I’ve had breast cancer it takes on more value for me. 

What I’d really like to do is have someone else decorate it for me.   Maybe they could decorate my cast AND me, like Michael Colanero does here at Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project?  Such a cool thing he’s doing there.  Check out this video.  This one is censored, but the other’s aren’t so be WARNED!

I wish some place like this would paint my cast for me! 

And what’s up with painting casts of women who don’t have breast cancer.  What would be really great is if they offered casts to women who were about ready to lose their breasts!  What a cool gift!  But I get it.  There’s not much money in gifting a breast cast **sigh**.  And the point is to raise money for a cure….which of coarse I am 100% behind as well.

Just wish I could find someone to do something cool with my cast!  Hint, hint!

So if I do paint this thing myself.  What should I do?  Maybe I can make it in to a fruit bowl?

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Mastectomy Reality

Mastectomy.  One of the most vile words in the English language.  At least that’s how I feel about it.  Not a pleasant thought comes to mind when someone says this word.  But here’s the deal.  I’ve been hearing from women lately who are about ready to have mastectomies.  So here are my few words of encouragement for you.

1.  You are very brave.  You may feel like you don’t have a decision in the matter, but you do.  You could seriously tell them to get lost.  But you will be brave, and you will go and you will lay down, and you will allow them to put needles in you and allow them to drug you, so they can do their job…..and just the fact that you arrived at the hospital means you are very, very brave.

2.  The wait is excruciating.  I can’t say this is the worst part, because you will have an incredible amount of pain afterwords, but anticipating deformity is nothing anyone finds especially kind on the emotional well-being.  Once it is over, you can get busy getting better.  Of course, I waited 6 months for my surgery because IBC is treated with chemo first.  So my wait was a bit longer than normal, so I remember it well.

3.  Your armpits and shoulders will be incredibly tight and sore, where they aren’t numb.  My friend Mary came to visit me the day after my mastectomies.  She had a mastectomy a few years earlier and she graciously swung her arms around for me to show me that complete movement was attainable.  You will need to be diligent and you will probably need to request physical therapy.  For some reason doctors don’t really offer this up.  It should be as standard as talk about reconstruction but you know our culture…..looks above anything else!  I had barely any movement in my arms after my surgery, and just a few days ago Mary and I were talking about that tight muscle or tendon in the armpit that was excruciatingly tight after the surgery.  We were commiserating together.  Her answer was massage.  Gentle yoga is also really great.  You can get complete movement back, just give it time and keep stretching!  And a lot of the numbness in the armpits will decrease as well. 

4.  Don’t wait too long to look.  My doctor quickly took off my gauze and I was a little angry at her because this was only a day after my surgery.  I really felt like I wasn’t ready to see.  But now I look back on it and I do believe she knew what she was doing.  She was giving me a glimpse of my new reality.  And I needed to come to grip with my new reality.  I needed to see and accept the change in my appearance.  There’s no sense waiting around to emotionally accept your new normal.

5.  Lymphedema is not as common as it sounds on the internet.  I don’t know the statistics, but I remember reading on the internet about how it was so common and looking at gruesome pictures that made me SO scared!  And no one can promise you that you won’t get lymphedema  Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason and it will just show up.  But you can keep your weight down, exercise and take precautions, and hopefully it won’t happen.  I know very few women who have serious lymphedema after mastectomies, so I hope this brings you some peace of mind.

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Lifting Weights Good for Breast Cancer Survivors

Check it out….carry that heavy bag, lift that toddler.  I do anyway.  I really forget about lymphedema for the most part. 

So tell me, do you or do you not believe this?  Some of you swell up at any sign of humidity and others of us don’t have any issues….yet. 

I feel like I’m helping keep away from lymphedema by exercising and lifting light weights.  I don’t go overboard but a few times a week I do some repetitions with my arms.

I’d be interested hear from anyone who has started exercising because they had lymphedema and it helped and I’d be interested to know if you feel like you aquired lymphedema from exercising and using your arms too much?

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One Year Post-Mastectomy

A lot can happen in a year.  Hard to believe that a year ago today I was recovering from a double mastectomy.  It seems so long ago!  Yet here I am, one year later and I just got back from running two miles and have a tummy tuck and a whole new set of breasts.   It actually occurred to me when I was out running that today was the day last year.  

Someone recently told me that it takes a lot longer for them to put them back on than it is for them to take them off.  And I have resigned myself to this truth.  There will probably be several more surgeries over the next year to put the nana’s back together.  None of them as big as the initial of course, but surgeries none-the-less. 

But I am happy today on the anniversary of my mastectomies that I can run, and am physically healthy.   I suppose if you are facing mastectomies, or you are dealing with the numbness, lack of movement and overall physical and emotional nightmare of having just gone through a mastectomy, hearing me talk about running and moving around might give you hope.  I sincerely hope it does.  A lot of the numbness doesn’t go away.  I have numbness on the back of my arm and from my pelvis to my breasts, but it isn’t as bad as it was and it is getting better.  And I have complete range of motion in my arms now.   I still miss my breasts.  I miss them every day.  But I am moving on and I am adjusting.

Oh, and it’s my MIL’s birthday, so happy birthday Kim, who always thanks Jesus for me and prays for my healing and loves me even when I don’t deserve it.

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Spinal Twist Yoga Pose

Here’s another of my favorite stretches after the mastectomies and reconstruction.  It took me a while to be able to lay my shoulder flat to the floor on this one but it felt so good to do this even though it was tight and sometimes even discouraging.  But keep doing it….only till you feel slight stretching.  Don’t overdo it.  Gradually your shoulder and arm will extend further to the floor.

Follow the instructions for Supine Spinal Twist Here.

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Hangnail Drama Queen

I do feel a bit like a drama queen.  Thanks to all who graciously sent words of encouragement through my freak-out episode with the hangnail.  I’m happy to report it is much better.  Here’s what happened.  I emailed my oncologist.  We emailed back and forth and I sent her a picture.  (Gotta love technology).  She said if it got worse over the weekend to call her immediately.  But she wanted me to soak it in warm water with epson salt several times a day.  Well, we were busy through the fourth of July weekend and I really didn’t want to call and bother her, but the nail bed started turning green.  Gross huh.  Green.  My friend Mary was like…..Jen…what’s up with you and infections….lol!  So I decided on Monday I would call and go in.  BUT, on Sunday night when we were over at a friends house, the blister or whatever was under the skin must have burst on it’s own and all this yucky stuff oozed out.  Lovely….are you sufficiently grossed now.  Anyway….since there was an opening I could then soak it in hydrogen peroxide.  SoI did that several times last night and put neosporin over it and this morning it looks much better and feels much better.  The swelling and heat is gone and most of the redness too.

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Freak’in Hang Nail!

I know there’s a song out there that says “rainy days on Mondays always get me down,”  I need a song that includes “grey, cold, rainy days, in early July with fears of lymphedema and big surgical wounds that won’t heal.”  Is there something out there like that.  Ignore me, I’m having a down day.

I may need a little advice.  So you ladies who have had lymph nodes removed from your arms speak up.  Last week I did the unspeakable for someone with lymph nodes removed.  I chewed on a hang nail and ultimately ripped it off.  It hurt really bad when I did it.  I remember thinking “why the heck did I just do that.”  But it still didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t a good idea in light of my missing lymph system.  So here I am five days later and my finger is hot, red and swollen.  It also hurts.  A lot.  I finally put some neosporin on it yesterday when I noticed it was getting this way.  It also dawned on me that this was probably not a good thing considering my medical history.

So I’ve been tooling around the internet and of course I’ve gotten myself worried.  Here’s an article that says seek medical attention now.  And here’s a lovely little story about how a hang nail turned into cellulitis

I do not feel achy.  My arm is not swollen.  I see no red streaks yet.  Oh, but I’m a watch’in. 

That, and which freak’in doctor do I call?  My oncologist?  My surgeon?  My new family doctor?  I can see it now…..”um, yes, I have a hang nail I’d like you to look at.”  Yea right, they’ll be get’in me right in.  I don’t have much hope in receptionists these days. 

Has anyone had experience with this and do you have any advice for me?

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Yoga Moves After Mastectomies

Before my mastectomies I knew I was going to get full mobility back in my arms.  I wasn’t just trying to achieve this, I was determined to reach my goal.  One of the best things I did was get in to physical therapy after the surgery.  Anyone who’s had a “no skin sparing” mastectomy knows you have very little mobility after the surgery.  Even after my reconstruction I was limited, but not like what the mastectomies did to me.  I like to say they got confused and gave me a “boob tuck” rather than a “tummy tuck.”  It took the reconstruction for them to get it right…..lol!  No really, it was needed.  A t-shirt at the “race for the cure” event I went to recently had this on it:  “These are fake, mine were killing me.”  And so it goes.  Mine were killing me so I got new ones.

But the second best thing I did was join the yoga class at the cancer center.  During treatment a wonderful young woman from my daughters school came and brought me a meal.  She shared with me her own journey through colon cancer.  She said that I really needed to check out this class.  It took me a few months, but I finally did it.  It was the best advice I was given during my treatment.  Yoga stretching has given me complete mobility back into my arms.  I would say I am 98% back to normal.  And I’m telling you this only 2 months after reconstruction.  My plastic surgeon reminds me that none of his other patients are this active two months after the DIEP reconstruction and he shakes his head when I tell him how much I’m running. 

I’m going to start a new line of posts dedicated to the yoga moves that have helped me the most.  I’ll put a link so that you can see how it’s done.  My friend told me her mom, who had breast cancer 20 years ago, can only lift her arms to her shoulders.  She can’t lift them above her head.   Don’t settle for this.  I know they give you the “climbing the wall” exercise that helps, but if you only ever do this, it will take you longer to get mobility.  So when you feel recovered from your surgery,  find a yoga class, or check out some of these moves!

Yoga Stretch:  Child’s Pose (this is my favorite, I do this almost daily!)

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Venting

It was supposed to be a simple procedure.  It wasn’t supposed to be emotionally draining.  I’m talking about going to the local Red Cross to donate blood for my own surgery. 

Mistake #1

I’ve been trained by my local lymphedema clinic physical therapists very well.  I will always ask to have my blood pressure taken from my leg rather than my arm.  This is what I’m supposed to do since I’ve had lymph nodes removed from both arms.  I’m supposed to avoid taking blood or any constrictions that my cause lymphedema.

Mistake #2

I have a huge fear of lymphodema.  If you had breast cancer and had lymph nodes removed, you might have done searches on the Internet and come up with this…..or this.  And I’m being nice.  I don’t want to gross you out with the worst picture I can find.  And if lymphodema gets bad enough you might have to walk around in this for weeks or maybe even life.  I’d like to think I’m being unrealistic but the truth is that I could get an infection from a hang nail or I could set it off from a simple blood pressure cuff in the arm.

So I didn’t think I was being too difficult when I asked if the people taking my blood could take my blood pressure out of my leg (all the doctor’s offices do this?) and I asked them if they could be as careful and gentle as they could when they take the blood. 

Well….this opened into a full fledged crisis that left me crying in the end. 

The woman I was talking with got the woman in charge who came over to tell me that was not in the written guidelines for the Red Cross.  It MUST be taken in the arm.  I then told her I would be fine doing the blood pressure in my arm but I admitted to them that I was quite surprised they were so up in arms about taking the blood pressure in the leg.  It is the exact same thing only in the leg.  There are minor variations.  SO I let her know I was fine with it but I was surprised by it and that I may follow up with this very uninformed policy.

So instead of just doing it in my arm she decides to call the director….who is a doctor BTW.  She talks to him and while talking to him she says “He’s wondering if this is a preference or an order by your doctors?”  As far as I’m concerned it’s an order…..so I said such.  Any medical professional should know you should avoid pressure or cutting/poking on an arm with lymph nodes missing.  This is not saying in an emergency it can’t be done….it’s just about avoiding anything that might tip off the early onset of lymphodema.

So then she gets off the phone and informs me that their “guidelines” don’t allow them to take the blood pressure from the leg and since it’s an “order” from my doctors I can’t have blood taken.  Aghhh! 

So I’m getting angry now.  I ask her to get the doc on the phone again.  I won’t go into details but Iwas pretty up front with him.  Basically I said….I’m a mom of three kids, I don’t want lymphedema.  If HE was in my situation he would do whatever he could to avoid lymphedema and that my doctors don’t tell me I CAN’T take the pressure in the arm, but they do tell me to avoid it.”  Finally I convinced the doctor that I could do it out of my arm…..by now I’m in tears. 

I just wanted my dang blood taken so I could have it for after my surgery and I’m being careful about my situation.  I didn’t mean to make it so difficult!

I do not want to harp on the Red Cross because heaven knows they are a wonderful organization, and those nice people are getting my blood to Northwestern to be available for me after my surgery at no cost.  But I think it’s absolutely CRAZINESS that they will not take a simple blood pressure reading in a leg!

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