WARNING! If you’re a bloke, or in any way squeamish or don’t like talking about boobs and blood and stuff, look away now!
So, breast cancer surgery brings with it the risk of developing lymphoedema. Yeah, I know. Lympha-WHAT? exactly what I asked….
I have big boobs. Really. Big. Boobs! I think something went slightly awry in the genetic petrie dish as it would seem I got my sister’s AND my own share of flesh to adorn my chest! I spent my teenage years and early 20s hating the size of them, and trying to hide them under voluminous baggy clothes. Somewhere in my 30s I came to terms with them, developed some body confidence and started wearing more figure-hugging clothes. My diagnosis of breast cancer came well into my 40s. Even for someone like me with an ambiguous relationship with my breasts, it’s pretty devastating to hear those dreaded words: ‘You have breast cancer’; but every cloud has a silver lining, so they say. My silver cloud was the size of my breasts meant that I would not need to have the whole breast removed. It was feasible for my surgeon to do a lumpectomy, i.e. remove the offending lump, which he warned would cause ‘some loss of volume’, but quickly added, ‘not that you’ll miss it’! You’ve got to love the guy for his sense of humour.
I had my lumpectomy on the 23rd of June 2014, ten days after my diagnosis and only after a further investigative procedure on my right breast, called a steriotactic biopsy (more traumatic for me than surgery and perhaps the subject of a future blog post). He also removed twelve lymph nodes from under my left arm, three of which were cancerous. Hence the need for the full menu of chemotherapy and radiotherapy which dominated the second half of year for me. Anyway, I came round from my surgery feeling a bit sore and with a drain emanating from under my arm releasing the build up of fluid and blood and gunk that accumulates once lymph nodes are removed. Not pleasant to deal with. But fortunately for me, I only needed the drain for a few days and was free of it by the time I went home.
While in hospital, the physiotherapist came to visit me every day and it was through her I learned about lymphoedema and other risks that might materialise post-surgery. Loss of feeling in the left arm and underarm, loss of mobility in the arm (and hence an imperative to do regular exercises), nerve pain, and lymphoedema. The loss of feeling/numbness is disconcerting, and the nerve pain horrible as it is quite extreme at first – sort of shooting pains down your upper arm, and sometimes into the boob. It settles down, but still now, nine months after surgery, I have ‘dead’ areas under my arm and I still get nerve pain in the arm and breast which takes me by surprise. And others, for that matter! A number of times I’ve caught people giving me an odd look…. and then I realise I have instinctively grabbed my boob in pain! I tell you, this disease robs you of dignity at times. But I’ve become quite blase about taking my top half clothes off and having various people peer at my chest with great interest, and prod, massage, manipulate and move about the considerable amount of flesh that makes my chest, my chest!
While I’ve been lucky not to get lymphoedema in my arm (thus far – it can develop at any time), which can be very painful and uncomfortable, I have got it in my breast. Side effect of radiotherapy which causes tissue damage and inflammation. As though mocking my surgeon’s insistence I would lose a bit of volume, actually, my left breast is swollen, thanks to a persistent collection of fluid. We’re trying to get rid of it through regular lymphatic drainage – a specialised type of massage to encourage the lymph system to operate healthily. So, I’ve been schlepping up to Wimbledon twice a week to have my boob massaged by the nice lymphatic drainage therapist. It’s not an entirely unpleasurable experience, but kind of weird and surreal too!