Taking stock of post-cancer-treatment me

Not really.

Not really.

I like to think about my breast cancer experience as little possible, and on a good day I succeed. I have many physical reminders of my BC that have nothing to do with the preponderance of pink ribbons and their campaigns:
• my lymphoarm and all the joy it brings me,
• dark ashy hair without a touch of blond,
• aches and pains in my breasts,
• the fact that no bra will ever fit right again (until I get a custom made one with different-sized cups, or wear a prosthesis or padding),
• the suspicion that the lopsidedness is visible to casual onlookers,
• scars on chest/breasts and under my arm, and finally,
• the radiation tattoos.

What I tell myself about each of these points:
• can’t hide the bandages or the sleeve and glove, gonna have them for the rest of my life, so I just have to deal
• thinking that getting some blond highlights back in my hair is a great idea as part of my back to work preparation—just need a whack of cash that I don’t have just now
• can’t take pain pills for that, gonna have them for the rest of my life, so I have to deal
• could have a third breast surgery to reduce the left one, and even though my plastic surgeon is an accomplished anatomical artiste I think I do not want another go-round, so I will just have to deal
• if someone is staring at my chest and discovers one breast is larger than the other, really, what the hell can I do? At present I’m home all day, or running kids around in the car, or going to appointments where I guarantee no one is staring at breasts with anything but a passing or clinical interest, so if that reminder really gets to be too much I will just get fitted for a prosthesis
• I am on my third bottle of Bio Oil in efforts to decrease the appearance of my scars and as long as I keep my arm down and clothing on, the only one that is visible is the one from my port and it’s not so bad now
• the radiation tattoos, particularly the one in the centre of my chest, above almost every neckline I wear, is the one thing I CAN do something about. There is a plastic surgeon here in Toronto who does radiation tattoo removals for free in the month of October (and hopefully shortly thereafter).

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Lymphadema / lymphahell revise

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You would never believe how long it took me to do this fishtail bandaging. It was far easier to do a fishtail braid on my hair! When I had hair long enough to braid, that is…

(This is a long somewhat whiny post, now that I read it, so apologies upfront)

I went back to the Lymphadema Clinic at Princess Margaret Tuesday for a follow-up on the art of bandaging. Tessa and Luka accompanied me this time, Tessa to film and Luka to do some hands-on bandaging. One of the many frustrating things about this stage of lymphadema is that when the hospital therapists show you how to do the required  bandaging, they do it with their two hands. Then you go home and have to bandage your arm with one hand. In my case, my dominant hand is the one with the lymphadema, so I am using my not-very-adept left hand, which makes it even slower and more frustrating. So, Luka agreed to come and be the RMT-in-training.

This is not new—Luka coming with me to appointments—when Tessa returned to Russia in March, Luka stepped in as my right-hand when it came to appointments. He had a break when Tessa returned at the end of May, but since she is back to Russia again first thing in September, Luka has been my partner in this new lymphadema bandaging debacle. He came and filmed the first bandaging appointment and demonstration at the hospital, then came and filmed a one-hour manual lymphatic drainage massage with an RMT and osteopath last Saturday. Michel Moya-Mora, at the Wellness Institute on Royal York Road, gave me an excellent two-handed massage, and talked all the way through, telling Luka how to angle the shots, and instructing me on what he was doing and why. Such a luxury!

At Princess Margaret I learned that my swelling wasn’t at 13% more than my left arm but at 23%. Ug. I thought my right arm and hand looked HUGE, but when I heard 13% I thought “Well, it looks really puffy to me but 13%, that’s not so bad.” Who knows what percentages look like when you’re looking at your own appendages? But hearing the value is 23% made me think “Holy crap, I knew this was serious.”

Pam, the lymphadema therapist I met with, was very sweet. I’d met her before in the clinic, but with all the women she must meet there I was surprised she remembered me. I told her I was freaked by the increase in the size of my arm and the hardness of the flesh now that I was bandaging. She made suggestions, changed me from soft cotton padding to the thick, firm, open cell foam I’m using now. I asked her for truths about my condition, not gentle platitudes, and she gave them to me.

Bandaging is a pain, but it is he only way to reduce the size of the affected arm. I can and must do self maunal lymphatic drain massage twice a day, for an hour. That involves stimulating lymph nodes in the head, neck, shoulder, chest, back, armpits, trunk and groin, in addition to massage to move the fluid in the fingers, hand, arm, shoulder, back, chest, breast and trunk.

Then, in this order:

1. cotton stockingette on full length of arm

2. bandaging of all fingers, thmb, hand and writst with two rolls of two-inch gauze

3. channelled foam padding between the fingers and on the back of the hand

4. cotton stockingette over the hand

5. strip of fine four-inch foam around the hand twice, above and below the thumb

6. wrap four-inch-wide, four-centimetre thick open-cell foam all the way up the arm

7. 6-cm short-stretch Compilon bandage over te hand at least eight or nine layers, then up the forearm until it runs out

8. the 8-cm wide bandage from wrist to armpit

9. then 10-cm wide bandage from wrist to armpit

10. then tape securely and go for a nap. Sometimes I do—it’s a tiring wrestling match.

This bandaging has yet to go smoothly on the first go. I do it too tight and can’t feel my fingers by the time on the second short-stretch bandage, or worse, the tingling starts 10 minutes after I’ve finished the whole thing, which means I have to unwrap EVERYTHING and start fresh. There’s no such thing as leaving the arm wrapped and finessing the hand—it starts with the hand. I drop rolls of bandage and gauze, and of course they unroll across the floor.

The lymph node and arm hand massage takes an hour. The bandaging, so far, takes at least an hour when you factor in the fact I must re-roll all the gauze and bandages before applying them.

That’s four hours a day!

I am elevating my arm above the level of my heart twice a day for an hour at a time, letting gravity do its part to lessen the swelling.

Through my work insurance I can get five hours of professional lymphatic drainage massage, so I’m planning to blow that in the next two to three months to try and get this arm down and into the sleeve and glove I hated so much before.

Now I think wistfully of my sleeve and glove. It’s like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: you don’t know what you’ve  got til it’s gone.

Onward and upward.

Lymphadema / lymphahell

This is my impression of Dr. Zoidberg. It is my first bandaging for Stage II lymphadema.

This is my impression of Dr. Zoidberg. It is my first bandaging for Stage II lymphadema.

Today was a typical day in my new normal: sleeping from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. with many wakings due to lonely, mewing cat Benny, bad dreams and new screeching leg cramps; drifting in and out of sleep from 9 a.m. to noon; up until 5, then sleep until 9:30 when Tessa woke me to a fully prepared meal (made by her and Luka). That was a bonus and welcome treat. Now I will prepare for the new fun in my daily routine—bandaging my lymphadema arm.

The bandaged arm. Note my normal hand and how you can actually see bones there.

The bandaged arm. Note my normal hand and how you can actually see bones there.

I had been managing the lymphadema in my right hand, arm, breast and trunk very well since it was diagnosed in November last year. Twice daily self MLD (manual lymphatic drainage) massage, meticulous skin care, wearing custom-made compression gloves and sleeves all day (only taken off when I was lying down) and participating in a specialized exercise program (Lebed Healthy Steps) kept my lymphadema at Stage I. After my May surgery it was difficult to do the self-massage and since I was on bed rest for two weeks I kept my arm elevated and massaged as well as I could. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough. In June my arm started hurting the same way it did when I was diagnosed, and I could see the swelling was increased. I saw Dr. Chang, a physiatrist at the Princess Margaret Lymphedema Clinic, and among other things we discussed—like this freaking fatigue that keeps hanging around—he referred me back to a lymphadema therapist for hand and arm measuring and the dreaded treatment for Stage II: bandaging.

This angle shows I actually still have all my fingers...

This angle shows I actually still have all my fingers…

I thought massaging and wearing the compression sleeve and glove was a life sentence, but this fresh hell is far worse. My arm at Stage I was only 3-4% larger than my unaffected left arm, which was very good. Now my right arm is 13% larger, and feels gross and painful. Compression sleeves and gloves hold your arm and hand at the size they are. Only bandaging can hope to reduce the size of the arm and hand. Extended massage of the neck, arm, etc., etc., right down to the tops of my legs now has to happen twice a day, no more than an hour at a time. Then I do the bandaging: a stockinette over the entire arm, bandaging of all the fingers, thumb, hand and wrist, then wrapping of the whole thing in cotton padding, then wrapping with three different widths of compression bandages in specific patterns and directions, right up to the armpit. WITH ONE HAND!

Luka came to the first bandaging appointment and videotaped everything. Thank God for that, because even with his video I was barely able to figure out what to do once I got home. I do not know how anyone could have that one session and then be prepared to do this at home with only one hand to do everything. My brain was unable to absorb anything from the session. That is very alarming.

I have had three good sobbing cries while trying to do this bandaging. It is taking me almost an hour each time. Add the hour-long massaging before bandaging and I’m looking at four hours a day on my hand and arm. Try not feeling hopeless. I’m hoping the pity party on the Stage II is nearing its end and that I’ll be able to speed up the bandaging somewhat.

My life as a sloth: Now, this is funny!

That was a depressing post yesterday because I was, well, depressed. I did as I said I should, which was go look at cute animal videos, and found this one.

It is very cute, very funny, and pretty loaded with swear words and inappropriate things, but it made me howl with laughter, so here goes. You are forewarned.

 

True Facts about Sloths

 

I hope you liked it! The creator has many more: check him out on YouTube.

 

True facts about my status

I have a double-barrelled day of fun tomorrow: follow-up appointments with my oncology surgeon (one-year anniversary of my bilateral partial mastectomy and lymph node dissection) in the morning, and with my oncologist in the afternoon. I think there’s bloodwork in there, but no mammogram.

I’ve made a brief list of subjects to touch on:

  1. What’s with this damn fatigue, really?
  2. How much longer will my right breast keep shrinking?
  3. Will my finger- and toenails ever return to normal?
  4. Can I have my radiation tattoos removed, and are there any special instructions?
  5. When do the docs start counting survival?
  6. Is there anything special about survival with triple negative breast cancer that isn’t covered in the media?
  7. Will I be getting any extra MRIs or scans since my tumour was never found?

That’s all I’ve got right now. I’m not worried so far.

Wish me luck!

 

 

My own private saint is too busy for caregiver fatigue

This is Saint Nikolai Velimirovich; my saint Nikolay looks considerably younger, has no facial hair, and never wears vestments; from http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2014/11/25/st-nikolai-velimirovich-technology-is-deaf-mute-and-unanswering/

This is Saint Nikolai Velimirovich; my saint Nikolay looks considerably younger, has no facial hair, and never wears vestments; from http://orthodoxchurchquotes.com/2014/11/25/st-nikolai-velimirovich-technology-is-deaf-mute-and-unanswering/

I took it very, very easy this first post-surgical week at home. I did not do that first time around—I was more like Hey! bilateral partial mastectomy? of course I can do groceries!

This time, with Tessa, my primary caregiver for the last 15 months in Russia, my man has stayed with me around the clock since Wednesday night (seven days!), making all meals—not a single delivery car has darkened the driveway—bringing them to me, cleaning up afterward, as well as doing groceries, feeding and watering all four cats and the dog, driving Luka to gymnastics, and the bus terminal, and Graydon to the scooter store, and the convenience store and so much more. It makes me feel very special, particularly as I have come out from under the narcotics haze and realized what he really has done while I’ve been sleeping. I hope I never have to return the favour (because then he would be in massive pain, etc.), but will figure another way to return this fine treatment. ❤

My surgery was a success!

 

I am evil and will surely go to Hell, but when this photo popped up while I was researching "successful surgery" I knew I had to use it. In the photo,  Dr. Donald A. McCain, Chief, Division of Surgical Oncology Hackensack University Medical Center,  Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery UMDNJ; I'm not sure what type of tumour that is, but It WASN'T mine!! Dr. McCain does more than 20 Whipple procedures a year, which means he's up there with the best of them. This photo is from http://drdonaldmccain.com/or-cases/live-surgery-images/successful-surgery-ii/

I am evil and will surely go to Hell, but when this photo popped up while I was researching “successful surgery” I knew I had to use it. In the photo, Dr. Donald A. McCain, Chief, Division of Surgical Oncology Hackensack University Medical Center, Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery UMDNJ; I’m not sure what type of tumour that is, but It WASN’T mine!! Dr. McCain does more than 20 Whipple procedures a year, which means he’s up there with the best of them. This photo is from http://drdonaldmccain.com/or-cases/live-surgery-images/successful-surgery-ii/

 

My surgery was a success!

Now this says successful surgery! And this photo is from The Elite Trainer, Toronto's own (well, Richmond Hill's own now, but he started in Toronto) John Paul Catanzaro: http://theelitetrainer.com/ index.cfmt=Blog&pi=BLOG&blid=185

Now THIS says successful surgery! And this photo is from The Elite Trainer, Toronto’s own (well, Richmond Hill’s own now, but he started in Toronto) John Paul Catanzaro. He has been in the fitness biz for 20 years, and been published in 25+ mags and web sites, speaks everywhere, has two books, two DVDs and his own private training facility. Photo: http://theelitetrainer.com/ index.cfmt=Blog&pi=BLOG&blid=185

I of course never doubted for a minute that it wouldn’t be—I doubted it for days, mostly in the what-if-I-die-on-the-table? vein, or far, far worse, what-if-she-cuts-in-there-and-there’s-more-cancer?

So neither of those things happened. My surgery was around 10:45, and I was in recovery a long time. I came up to my room about 6, texted a few friends that I was getting “excellent Spain meds” then watched at least three episodes of American Justice on my phone while I made blue bracelets.  I had a feeling it would take a while for me to calm down after I came to, and for them to find the right drugs for me (I hate pain, and will work hard to find the correct relief). Once my wonder-nurse introduced fentanyl into the IV, I was pain free, alert, even lighthearted. If you could see what I could see under my gown, you could estimate how much drug was required to get that effect!

I actually took some photos of my left breast and the incredible sculptural work my surgeon had wrought there—skin, tissue, black thread, wound up gauze, a clear cup—this is what I’d been hounding my surgeon for, and there it was. OMG is all I can say.

••• If you’re considering or have started reconstruction, and you have any questions, please mail me privately and we can talk about anything. The fact that my grandpa and grandma-in-law, and many colleagues, some neighbours, read this blog occasionally means that I think the details of my surgery are simply TMI for this blog. Seriously, I have photos and lots of experiences to share with any sister going through this, triple negative or not! •••

All night long I wandered in and out of sleep, lulled and awakened in turn by my sequential compression booties, fabulous boots that wrapped me up to my knees and went on all night sucking and blowing and making me think more than once that I was safely at home with Dixie, or Princess or Benny or Angel rubbing hard against my leg, almost lifting it off the bed looking for the best place to stretch out. I did fantasize about having a sequential hand-arm-shoulder-breast-and-trunk contraption that I could wear all night and never have to self-massage or wear my yucky sleeve and glove again though…

I was discharged the next morning, exactly at 11, with drains dangling. It was a bit of déjà vu from May 23, 2014 or I guess not, since it was almost identical, except for the compression sleeve and glove. By the way, I wore the sleeve and glove through pre-op and the actual surgery, explaining to the nurses and docs that it was my way of saying DON’T TOUCH THIS ARM! Obviously, they’ve seen it before.

I took it very, very easy this first week at home. I did not do that first time around—I was more like Hey! bilateral partial mastectomy? of course I can do groceries!

This post is long enough. I’ll write shortly about my follow-up.

Why am I having another surgery?

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This is a weird post to write. I’m hoping that since I am flipping out about my surgery in just over 48 hours, writing this could be cathartic, lessen some of my anxiety, give me some release.

Over the last few months I’ve had people ask me why I was going for a second surgery. I’m an open person, and a big believer in talking through your problems—a problem shared is a problem halved, that sort of thing. If I didn’t talk about things going on in my life, I think I would have imploded years ago. So when I would say that I had another surgery to go in my breast cancer saga, I was always prepared for the “what” question, and would respond with the whole “it’s called a revision, I had a partial mastectomy last year after chemo, but they call the recon a work in progress, radiation shrinks you, excess skin, scarring, balancing,” blah, blah, blah.

But the question that threw me each time was the “why?” “Why are you having another surgery?” “Aren’t you worried that something could go wrong? “Why not leave well enough alone?” “I wouldn’t let them near me with a scalpel again.” “They look fine to me.”

Why would these questions and comments bother me so much? I’m the one who says to talk everything over, get it out in the open. Maybe it’s because I’ve hit a tipping point where talking isn’t helping anymore. Maybe because I finally have to face I’m a vain person. If you’re a friend, or have been following my story, you’ll know how freaked out I was about losing my hair, butI still don’t think of that as vanity as much as it was about losing my identity and not recognizing myself. But really, is not wanting to have two differently sized breasts vanity? I’ve met wonderful women who walked away from their mastectomies and lumpectomies without any further surgeries and they’re satisfied, content, happy and thriving.

So here’s what I think, after much self-examination.

I want to do the surgery because I feel that cancer has taken away more than a year of my life, has left me with lymphedema of the arm, hand, breast and trunk, a lifelong sentence of wearing a compression sleeve and glove, the need for twice daily exercises and self-massage, restriction of movement, pain, loss of energy, craving for sleep that never satisfies, feeling that my memory will never work well again, and the crushing fear that the cancer will come back.

I intend to be here for a long, long time, and I want to take back as much as I can from cancer. I want my hair back to my shoulders, and I want breasts that match. I look at these things every single day, and while I’ll never get the original size back (nor would I want it back now that I’ve experienced life at this size), I do want to be able to fit into an off-the-shelf bra and not have to rearrange myself all day long. Or wear a prosthetic breast form.

I want to be able to buy a bra from La Senza or Victoria’s Secret and have it fit. I’d also like to be able to function on eight hours of sleep a day instead of 14, but small steps, small steps.