I can go months and never think about cancer and that I participated in my own cancer dance sixteen years ago, but lately I’ve been thinking about and talking about cancer and cancer treatments wherever I seem to be.
It started in my head. I’m back to painting Ann’s house on the inside now that the weather is warm enough and I could get her out of the garden long enough to de-clutter the upper living room so I could move furniture and get my ladders in place. Painting is good for thinking and lymphedema and exercise came to mind.
When I was diagnosed the doctors wanted to not only lop off the breast but remove lymph nodes to help stage my cancer, so they still say. Following surgery their plan was to give me radiation, chemotherapy, tamoxifen and possibly radiate my ovaries to put me in menopause and stop my estrogen production because my cancer was estrogen-receptor positive.
I agreed to the surgery and reluctant as I was to have lymph nodes sampled, I was talked into it. My twenty lymph nodes were free of cancer which helped me to firmly refuse ALL of their adjuvant therapies. I was not a preferred patient with the oncologist because I did the research and decided that just because the treatments are there doesn’t mean I needed them. Still, in all of my research it wasn’t until AFTER the surgery that I found the studies that stated that as many as 70% of women who had lymph nodes removed, some time after experienced lymphedema, which is lymph fluid pooling in tissues because the lymph channels have been removed. For some it can be very debilitating and they have to wear compression sleeves to keep the swelling down.
There was conflicting information about what to do to decrease that possibility. I worked diligently to regain the full motion of my right arm and at first did not carry anything heavy on that side. but I resumed swimming and other forms of exercise, mostly walking the dog several times a day and throwing sticks for him. I also went fly fishing a month after surgery and of course used my right arm.
These days, I only avoid having blood drawn on my right arm or doing the blood pressure cuff there. I think, that the statistics I found were so high because, when I was diagnosed at 43, it was still very unusual for someone so young to have breast cancer and most of the breast cancer patients who might have contributed to the statistics would have been over sixty and probably mostly not very active or in shape.
So, this month, I found myself moving large ladders around, and variously using my palm sander, a caulking gun and a vacuum cleaner up those same ladders. Some major heavy lifting was involved. Sixteen years of evidence says to me that exercise is good for staving off lymphedema.
A friend who had a lumpectomy a year before my surgery has had more tests lately because of some discharge. She was going to forgo the annual mammogram this year but after seeing her doctor did have the mammogram and as well, ultrasound and an MRI and now is going to schedule a biopsy. All this has led to more talking about treatments and diagnosing of breast cancers.
Then, yesterday I was at the post office to mail painter’s shorts to my brother. The woman clerk asked if I had lost an earring, something I get frequently because I have always had only one pierced ear, the left one. So I said, as usual,’I don’t have a hole on this (the right) side’, and she said, ‘you’re also missing a breast.’ I burst out laughing! That was a first and most amusing.
I was never asked if I wanted reconstruction, maybe because they didn’t think I would live long enough anyway or because there seemed to be skin involvement with my tumour (wasn’t). My medical wouldn’t pay for a prosthetic and I can always come up with something I’d rather have for that $200 than a fake boob. I also thought that by disguising my mastectomy no one would know and conversations might not be initiated about my cancer. It’s a very easy surgery to cover up and I think that many who have had it suffer with a lowering of self-esteem and feel less feminine. They also suffer alone. I hoped that by displaying my comfort level with my asymmetrical form that I could inspire others to reconsider or at least talk about it. My experience, though, is that many don’t even notice. I was at a party in Seattle 5 months after my surgery wearing a stretch velvet wrap dress that wrapped from the left across to the flat side. No one noticed, even my friend’s cousin who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Postal woman said that she thinks that most people still don’t want to talk about it. Cancer makes them uncomfortable and they are afraid they will get it and die. A person might as well be afraid of life because life leads to dying too. We all die. The important part is how we live. Lose the fear and life is much more fun, as it should be.
I’m not a cancer survivor. I had cancer once, a long time ago. It was environmentally caused and I used that opportunity to improve my body’s related systems and now I focus on (as I always have) having fun, being creative, and learning new things. Sometimes, like lately, I’m reminded, but mostly it’s not an issue, at all.