It’s turning out to be a busy week. There was some very welcome news on Monday, followed by lots of poking and prodding and pummelling over the rest of that day and the following day, but all to the good. There’s more to come; in fact by Friday afternoon, Wednesday will have been the only day this week I won’t have been at the hospital.
It’s funny, but since the operation on 19 December (mastectomy, axillary lymph node clearance and immediate reconstruction – Saturday’s op – a daunting prospect but a key step on the road to wellness), I’d been focusing so much on my recovery that the cancer had pretty much taken a back seat. However, it was very much back in focus as I headed to the hospital on Monday afternoon to hear from the breast surgeon on how much cancer there was in the removed breast and lymph nodes and whether I’d get to keep my own nipple on the reconstructed breast or whether it would have to be removed in a second operation.
I’d had what’s called a skin and nipple-sparing mastectomy. The breast surgeon had recommended this with the caveat that if any cancer cells were found when the tissue that was removed from directly behind the nipple during the mastectomy was biopsied, there would have to be a second operation to remove the nipple (Immediate reconstruction – the decision is made).
As with the reconstruction (“It’s perfect”), the mastectomy had been a technical success. If it had failed, the nipple would have turned black within six hours of the operation. It didn’t, thankfully. And as it turns out, there was good news on the biopsy front at Monday’s consultation. “No further surgery necessary,” the breast surgeon informed me. Needless to say, I’m both delighted and relieved at this outcome. I had expected to lose the nipple initially, but the fact that the chemo did such a good job (An “excellent response to treatment”) meant that a nipple-sparing mastectomy became an option. To have gone from assuming I’d lose it to thinking that I probably wouldn’t then back again to having to prepare to lose it after all would have been hard. So big smiles all round.
As for the removed breast, no mass was identified. Indeed, there was “no invasive in-breast disease” at all. If you consider that the tumour was initially probably bigger than 5cm across, you get an idea of just how successful the chemo was. As I’ve said before, the fact that the chemo worked so well on something we could see implies it’s had the same effect on any stray cells that may have broken away from the original tumour but can’t be seen while they’re on their way to try and cause havoc elsewhere in the body. And that, really, is the whole point of chemo.
On top of the mastectomy and reconstruction, I’d had a Level III axillary node clearance, which means that all the axillary lymph nodes on the affected side up to a essentially under the collarbone were removed. We knew at least one lymph node was “involved” – as the jargon goes – from the biopsy that was done in July. It turns out there were a “few scattered clusters” of cancer cells in seven out of the 10 nodes that were removed. That is the only fly in the ointment, albeit quite a big one.
Discussing the histopathology report was just one part of Monday’s consultation. The breast surgeon felt under my arm and announced I had developed something known as “axillary web syndrome” or “lymphatic cording“. Cording is a commmon occurence after breast cancer surgery involving the axillary lymph nodes and it’s when scar tissue develops in the lymph vessels from the armpit to as far down as the elbow. It feels like a tight cord – or a taut guitar string – under your skin. It’s harmless but disconcerting and it can be painful (it was). Also, because it’s tight, it restricts your arm and shoulder movement. I told the breast surgeon I was already in the process of arranging an appointment with the physiotherapist; I assumed she’d be able to help. I subsequently got an appointment for the following day, ie Tuesday.
Also, the fluid build-up (known as a seroma) in the underarm/breast area and in the abdominal area above the scar that had started after Christmas (Post-op progress report No 2: A bit of a moan) had got worse, so the breast surgeon sent me down to the radiology department to see if they could drain the fluid off. Having used ultrasound to locate the fluid, they extracted using a needle and syringe almost 400ml of fluid from the underarm and breast area. That’s more than is in a can of Coke, a friend helpfully pointed out. If you think of it that way, you can imagine how much more comfortable I felt afterwards. This might have to be done a few times before things settle down.
They tried very hard to drain the tummy area but try as they might and despite it feeling like there’s a bag of water in there, nothing came out.
Before the physio session on Tuesday, I had an appointment with the plastic surgeon. The reconstruction is looking good again now that the swelling’s gone down. The surgeon replaced some of the dressing on the abdominal scar, gave me some advice on scar care and tried to drain off some of the fluid from the abdomen and some more fluid from the breast. To no avail, on both counts. So she referred me back to the radiology department, where they’ll have another stab (literally!) at the abdomen later today.
At the physio session, the physiotherapist spent a considerable amount of time massaging the cording and loosened things off to such a degree that I had far more mobility in my arm and shoulder than I’d had when I entered her office just an hour earlier. Again, smiles all round.
I see the breast surgeon again tomorrow. As I said, a busy week. Then next Monday, I have an appointment with the oncologist followed by my second physio session. Also sometime soon, I need to meet the consultant who’ll be in charge of the radiotherapy part of my treatment. There’s a lot involved, isn’t there?