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).

Pinktober, and mammogram results tomorrow

Plastic surgeons have some of the prettiest and goriest websites around. Thank you to Calgary plastic surgeon for this visual (http://markhaugrud.com/procedures/breast-reconstruction/)

Plastic surgeons have some of the prettiest and goriest websites around. Thank you to Calgary plastic surgeon Dr. Haugrud for this very pretty visual (http://markhaugrud.com/procedures/breast-reconstruction/)

I haven’t posted anything this Pinktober about how uncomfortable the entire month of October feels for me. I like to not think about my breast cancer. The longer I can go NOT thinking about my breast cancer, the better. With most of my waking thoughts on my flipping lymphoarm (made up word) I succeeded in not thinking about breast cancer a lot over the last three and a half months, but the arrival of October and the pink ribbons and walks and sponsorships and fundraisers make it impossible to not get slammed in face with breast cancer constantly. Which is the cause of layers of discomfort: I think about breast cancer far more (bad), but all these things raise money for breast cancer (good) but the money goes all over the place and little of it goes to my cancer (triple negative) (bad), but I should be thankful for the awareness it raises (good) even if companies profit off the suffering and potential suffering of patients and family and friends (bad).

Ug. Suffice to to say I’ll be very happy to see Halloween night. We decorated the house tonight in the rain. I’ll post a pic on the 31st.

Two weeks ago I was back at St. Michael’s for a mammogram. My bandaged arm was too big to fit through the armhole of the hospital gown, so I went toga-style with one shoulder covered and the other bare. I sat in the rectangular room, chairs against all four walls, for a few minutes like that and then another patient came over with a second gown and put it around my shoulders. Why didn’t I think of that? What a nice gesture.

Into the scan room, and four uncomfortable squishings later the technician says “Let’s take a look at these,” so I follow her and we look at the scans and she says, “Hhhmm, the radiologist isn’t going to like the look of that one. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to do another one. I’ll try to be really fast.” “Oh, I’m not in any hurry,” I said, and she responded, “This one will hurt though, so I’ll try to be really, really fast.” My right breast has all the radiated tissue plus the scarring from surgery and biopsies, so I guess it wasn’t clear enough (or she didn’t correct me when I guessed that was the reason for the fifth scan).

And she wasn’t kidding. It hurt so much (sorry to say that, but might as well be honest), that tears literally popped from my eyes and I found it difficult to stay standing. I was gasping and gulping and crying all the way through the goodbyes and good lucks and sorries to the change room, where I stayed for a full five minutes until I could get a grip again. It was the freakiest thing. And it hurt until the next day.

So it’s been two weeks of Pinktober waiting for the results of my mammogram. I feel like I’m right on theme. I am confident there will not be bad news when I see my surgical oncologist, Dr. Jory Simpson, who could definitely play himself in the film version, because if the scans had shown something someone would have called me in before now. My anxiety level is fluctuating between a 1 and an 8, more in the lower end.

I did my bandaging too enthusiastically tonight because I can no longer feel anything but pins and needles. That means it all comes off and I start over again. I hate this. I can’t wait for my sleeve to come in.

Back to the bandaging

Here's a photo to celebrate International Coffee Day (http://internationalcoffeeday.org), a day I missed because of sloth-type behaviour of avoiding all forms of media for a couple of days. On International Coffee Day my first coffee was poured down the drain because the organic milk I poured into it was baaaaad. The 2 p.m. cup also went down the drain because Graydon mistook the unsweetened almond milk for grass-fed cow's milk. I can't stand almond milk in coffee or tea or me. Coffee is truly my drug of necessity—to say no to the constant call of my bed I drink a large coffee every hour for the first five or six hours of the day. That is the only way to beat my fatigue so far. This photo is what my days feel like, courtesy of meridian.com.

Happy International Coffee Day (http://internationalcoffeeday.org), a day I missed because of sloth-type behaviour of avoiding all forms of media for a couple of days. On International Coffee Day my first coffee was poured down the drain because the organic milk I poured into it was baaaaad. The 2 p.m. cup also went down the drain because Graydon mistook the unsweetened almond milk for grass-fed cow’s milk. I can’t stand almond milk in coffee or tea or me. Coffee is truly my drug of necessity—to say no to the constant call of my bed I drink a large coffee every hour for the first five or six hours of the day. That is the only way to beat my fatigue so far. This photo is what my days feel like, courtesy of meridian.com.

Being out of bandaging lasted for five days, then back into the Coban bandaging done by Lisa, my physiotherapist. My skin was all cleared up with just Polysporin. Dry blisters and old skin (ew!) meant it was OK to bandage again. I chose to go with Coban again because the trade off is worth it—$32 not covered by OHIP or my work health insurance plan, but it means I don’t have to do that ungodly bandaging or massage. It does mean I have to do mad lymphatic system pumping exercises and diaphramatic breathing (very hard on my scrambled brain to be doing movements, counting and regulating my breathing the whole time) (and embarrassing to have to admit that that combination of doing three things simultaneously is hard!!!). Since the Coban bandages have absolutely no stretch, when one gets the lymphatic system really pumping there is nowhere for the excess lymphatic fluid to go except out of the arm—or that’s the plan anyway.

I see Lisa tomorrow for the cutting off of the bandages and measuring to see if I’ve made more progress. Then, on Tuesday I go back to the Lymphedema Clinic at Princess Margaret and have the major measurements done to see how the arm and hand compare to my pre-flareup size. I’m not sure what the goal is according to them. According to me I want to be right back to the pre-flare measurements, so when I flare up again (keeping in mind that this is a chronic lifelong condition and I will flare again) it will be on my original lymphedema size, not on top of a new, bigger normal. If I reduce to, say, 6% larger than my left arm and then I flare again, it’ll be on a bigger arm. At that rate, my arm will just swell and swell and harden and harden. I picture a Violet Beauregarde scenario, and it isn’t pretty.

Lymphadema / lymphahell revise

20150803_235332
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.

Results from the one-year goodbye-to-breasts-and-lymph-nodes-surgery appointment

 

Up on time, out the door on time, at the front door of St. Mike’s on time, thanks to Nik! Yay!

Appointment with Dr. Jory Simpson—kind, smart, compassionate, calming, handsome—went swimmingly. It’s all good.

Bloodwork before seeing my oncologist, Dr. Christine Brezden-Masley—kind, smart, compassionate, encouraging, beautiful—during which I tried to have a read on my Vitamin D level added in, only to find it costs $110 (!!! what?!?! all the forums I’m on say be sure to get your Vitamin D levels done! who pays for that? not OHIP, so I’ll just be taking my 2,000 IU daily and hope for the best). After plenty of “me time” in the waiting room (I had a laptop, but my arm and hand are killing me…. ), my appointment with her went really well too. See answers to my questions below.

  1. What’s with this damn fatigue, really? It is what it is. Your body went through catastrophic systemic trauma from the cancer itself, two months of testing, four months of dose dense chemo, operations and procedures, radiation—your body needs time to heal. Cut yourself a big break. Everyone is different.
  2. How much longer will my right breast keep shrinking? Likely done shrinking now, but ask your radiation oncologist (August 12).
  3. Will my finger- and toenails ever return to normal? Not sure (the Beau-Reil lines are gone, as is the koilonychia, but they are still lifting off the nail beds and every type of nail polish bubbles up off them. Yuck. I need to find a cancer-experienced manicurist. Anyone?)
  4. Can I have my radiation tattoos removed, and are there any special instructions? Don’t see why not, but ask your radiation oncologist (again, next appointment with him is August 12).
  5. When do the docs start counting survival? At diagnosis (the doctors’ or my self-diagnosis, which are eight weeks apart? of adenocarcinoma or the real deal—triple negative breast cancer? I’m taking the date of my first chemo treatment, since up until then I was doing nothing to fight the fu**er. Asterisks for my mother and mother-in-law 😉
  6. Is there anything special about survival with triple negative breast cancer that isn’t covered in the media? Nope. The first three years are the ones to beat for recurrence.
  7. Will I be getting any extra MRIs or scans since my tumour was never found? Nope. Just standard mammograms, next one in October. Which seems a bit nonsensical since no mammo or MRI or ultrasound or mastectomy found the tumour in the first place, and triple negative rarely comes back in breast tissue anyway.

So, Dr. Brezden gave all my head and neck lymph nodes a good manipulation, and we had a good chat about how difficult it is not to wait for the other shoe to drop. That’s my nagging feeling, which I am sure that having a hormone to take would allay, but who can say? My cancer is still in remission. I’ll see her again in December, Dr. Simpson, my oncology surgeon, in October.

Onward and upward, fatigue, chemobrain and lymphadema are the enemies of the moment now. Survivorship is the goal.

Why am I having another surgery?

women-bras-online-940x626

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.

I have my surgery date!

Unknown-3

I received a call from my plastic surgeon’s secretary on Thursday with the date of my surgery: May 28. That had a few inconveniences attached to it—Tessa would be arriving back home from Russia the same evening; my boyfriend is planning to fly out May 29 to visit his sick father. But I don’t want to get caught in summer vacation roulette at the hospital, so it was a go. Pre-op on May 20.

I started the 27 Day Cleaning Countdown for the house. After this surgery I’ve been told there is no lifting, bending, raising arms, etc. With my current level of fatigue I achieve very little housecleaning, and the place has slid downhill. Anything that isn’t cleaned and sorted by May 27 will have to wait until mid-July, So Friday it was sort out the laundry room. 13 hours of sleep. Saturday was clean out front hall closet, sort, toss or Goodwill all footwear clear and wash front hall floor and baseboards, dust furniture.  3 hour nap; 13.5 hours of sleep. Sunday: 6 hours 15 minutes of sorting the garage, more laundry, cleaned out two kitchen cupboards. 3 hour nap; 2 hour nap, 9,5 hour sleep. Monday: Empty drawers in my room, pack some winter sweaters, reorganize upstairs linen closet, clean out and organize shelving unit in upper hall. 2 hour nap, 3.5 hour map, 9 hour sleep. I was channeling my anxiety over the surgery into cleaning, but it wasn’t doing anything about the fatigue. My house is looking better, and if I last three weeks, I’m sure the house would look houseguest-ready.

Then on Tuesday, the lovely secretary called with the offer to jump the surgery ahead two full weeks to May 14. Pros: My anxiety/dread/fear would be over two works earlier. Tessa will be spared having to be my personal support worker. My boyfriend will be here to take care of me. Cons: not enough time to clean house. No time to get the car fixed. Must have Luka’s birthday party this weekend. No travelling to Stratford for Mother’s Day. I’m still scared.

Unknown-1

So it’s on for Thursday, stay over one night, home on Friday. Preop is Tuesday.

Now I really need meditation and inner resources as  I climb clean the walls!