My Little Bs Have the Big C

A Breast Cancer Blog For Young Women


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Oh, Snap!

There is a sound.  It’s not quite a sonic boom but it’s fast and forceful.  The camera cuts to birds flying out of the trees, fleeing from the danger that the sound must bring.  The camera cuts to me, standing in shock.  As the camera pans to a closeup of my face, you can see tears welling up in my eyes slowing, promising an overflow within moments.  As dramatic music begins to swell in the background, I breathe in suddenly, as if I’d been holding my breath for hours.  Suddenly, a single tear escapes my eye, my face relaxes and the audience realizes that this is a moment of relief.  A release.  That all is well again.

This has been one of my many fantasies that I’ve had about my cords, or axillary web syndrome, breaking or snapping.  I have suffered from persistent and stubborn cording for almost three years now.  And I do mean “suffered.”  While I have had excellent range of motion, the cords have been extremely painful.  Especially my armpit.  Every time I lifted my arm, it was a tight, stretching pain.  I could feel the pull go deep into my chest wall beneath my once upon a time breast and into my scar tissue, down my arm and into my hand and fingers.  Does that make your skin crawl?  Well, it’s not pleasant.  But it was my normal.  I actually got used to being in discomfort.

For those of you who don’t know what cording is, it can occur resulting from a sentinel node biopsy or axillary lymph node dissection during a mastectomy.  One can develop rope or string like structures in your arm.  This can inhibit range of motion and be quite painful.  It is usually diagnosed by a physical therapist or lymphedema therapist (it is separate from lymphedema but can sometimes go hand it hand).  It is posited that most cases for cording resolve within a few weeks to a few months with stretches and therapy.  Read more about axillary web syndrome here.

But I stretched.  I stretched every day.  I went to therapy once or twice a week.  We pulled the cord.  We massaged the cord.  We dug into the cord.  We sang to the cord.  We breathed deeply into the cord.  And we definitely begged the cord.   And each time, nothing.  It would not move.  It was intent on staying exactly where it was.

Then, last week, I was laying on my couch watching tv and I was stretching my arm and with my left hand, stretching the cord as my OT does at her office.  I do this a lot in hopes that it will do something.  It never does.  But last week, out of nowhere I felt the most gentle pop.  It wasn’t even a pop.  It was an effervescence.  And suddenly, in the area where I was experiencing the most pain, the pain was gone.  There was some soreness where the cord had been but the rope like structure in my arm had suddenly disappeared.

Had I done it?  Had I achieved the impossible?  I went to be in disbelief, thinking I might have given it a good stretch.  But when I woke up, it was still gone.  I did it.  “I got you,  you fucker!!!!!!”

I had won the battle but not the war.  There were still more cords.  I still stretched every day.  One day I felt a pop in my wrist by my thumb.  I could always feel several cords there.  The pop felt like when I crack my knuckles (which I sometimes do with my wrist but near my pinky, never my thumb).  When I went to feel the cord, it was gone.  GONE!!!!!!

Then the other day, I was stretching again, and there was a thin cord.  Thin but mighty.  It caused a sharp pain every time I touched it.  But I was used to that pain.  I pulled it.  I tugged it, I dug under it and pulled it up.  Nothing.

But when I woke up in the morning, it was gone.  GONE!!!!!  Another one bites the dust!

I always imagined that when these cords went away, that there would be tears of relief.  But, the snap was so subtle and undramatic, that I didn’t know what to make of it.  With the last cord, I just continued putting cream cheese on my son’s bagel as if it were a normal morning.

I know that there are still more cords that I need to snap.  I can feel them and they are deep in my arm.  Really deep.  But I don’t feel hopeless anymore.  I know that I will get them one day.  My cords might be stubborn but so am I.

 

Did you have cording?

How long did it take for your cords to snap, if they did at all?

Do you have any magic tricks to make them disappear?

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A photo taken of one of my cords. Please excuse my hairy armpits, lol! It was winter and I couldn’t be bothered.

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Lymphedema and How It Has Changed My Life

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It’s the side effect that’s barely mentioned.  A whisper in passing by the surgeon and radiation oncologist.  Spoken nonchalantly as if not talking about it means it won’t happen.  But many of us know that this is not the case.

Today it was announced that the U.S. Senate unanimously voted that March 6th will be World Lymphedema Day.  This landmark decision is the first step in bringing awareness to this awful condition.  I wanted to use this opportunity to not only tell you all about lymphedema but how it has impacted my life.

Lymphedema can happen to anyone who has lymph nodes removed during their mastectomy, a sentinel lymph node biopsy or radiation to the area.  I’m not even talking about those who are born with or develop the condition as part of a hereditary trait or those who get it as a result of another bodily trauma.

Lymphedema is the swelling of an extremity that occurs when lymph fluid is trapped and can not flow properly.  I got lymphedema in my right arm and hand about six months after my mastectomy with axillary lymph node dissection.

I asked my surgeon about lymphedema, concerned about the risks.  “Do you see anyone in the waiting room with a sleeve?  It’s extremely uncommon.”  She then handed me a pamphlet about lymphedema prevention and sent me on my merry way.

Let me say, I love my breast surgeon.  What she does, she does brilliantly.  She’s warm and caring and when it came to my cancer and mastectomy, she was knowledgeable and giving.  Her job was to get the cancer out of my body and she did that.  What she had to do to my body is not pretty, but that doesn’t matter.  Her job was to save my life and she did that.  But that’s not where the story ends for many of us, is it?

Getting lymphedema has been traumatizing in many ways, more so than the cancer itself. Cancer was something to be beaten or overcome.  With my cancer I could have a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, herceptin and tamoxifen to help make sure it never comes back again (although even all of this is not a guarantee).  Lymphedema is for life.  It’s something I am going to have to manage.  At this time, there is no cure.

I’ll repeat that in all caps.

THERE IS NO CURE!!!!!!!

Knowing I had done everything I needed to do to save my life and many of these life saving measures have caused me to have a painful condition that I will have to live with for the rest of my life has been unbearable.  When it was first happening, I fell into a depression and cried all the time.

I couldn’t imagine how I was going to live my life with a limb that unpredictably swelled when I lifted my child, ate a salty meal or the weather went above 80 degrees.  I was afraid all of the time; afraid when I tried to imagine what my future might look like.  It was hard to imagine my future at all.

I felt ugly.  Like a teenager who’s uncomfortable in her developing body I began to hide my hand.  I’d fidget with my clothes so that they’d hide my swollen hand or how one sleeve was tighter on my arm than the other.  And feeling even more ugly than I already did after my mastectomy was a major blow to my self worth.  Sometimes, I wondered if life with lymphedema was worth living.  I never contemplated suicide or anything like that and I didn’t want to die.  But I wasn’t sure I wanted to live, either.

I kept a lot of these feelings to myself.  My husband, who knows how hard this has been on me doesn’t even know I was having these thoughts.  He’s going to flip the fuck out when he read this. (Don’t flip out, honey.  I’m ok, I promise.)

But that’s the problem with lymphedema.  Many people don’t know about it, not even doctors.  They don’t know how to talk to us about it and they don’t know how to help us prevent it from happening, although, sometimes it is unpreventable.  They also don’t know how to support us when and if it happens.  Like many medical conditions, we don’t need to simply treat the ailment but all of the mental and emotional baggage that comes with it.

That is where Cynthia Shechter comes in.  Cynthia is an amazing physical therapist who specializes in breast cancer care and lymphedema and she runs and owns Shechter Care here in NYC.  Before I met Cynthia, I was told that I would need to wear a compression sleeve every day for the rest of my life and go to sleep each night with my arm bandaged.  I told my previous PT that I couldn’t live like that.  Cynthia agreed.  Her goal is to find ways to manage my lymphedema and still be able to live my life comfortably.

Since meeting and working with Cynthia and her team, my lymphedema has improved.  Any time there is a flare-up, she doesn’t freak out.  She just says, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  We’ll get it back down.”  She means it and she does.  This has changed my whole perspective and outlook on life.  You see, now I don’t cry myself to sleep every night.  I don’t wonder if life is worth living.  I know it is and I can find a way to live happily with this condition.  Life will be hard and it won’t be perfect but there will be more joy and happiness than I thought I can have.  This is a huge gift.

Coming soon, I will have an interview with the amazing Cynthia Shechter about lymphedema.  I’m hoping that by bringing her expertise to my blog, many of your questions will be answered about lymphedema and care for women who have undergone breast cancer treatment.  With awareness and education, it is my hope that no one will have to feel hopeless like I did and will be able to advocate for their own care.  I can’t wait to introduce her to you all.

Did you develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery and treatment?

How has your life changed as a result of lymphedema?

What is one thing you would like people to know about your lymphedema experience?