Recurrence 5: How would you know it’d come back?

Your active breast cancer treatment finished months ago. You’ve had follow-up reviews with the doctors who’ve been treating you and they’ve all signed you off. Your first mammogram since you were diagnosed – just over a year ago now – is booked for December. You’re told to get in touch in the meantime “if you’re worried about anything”, which basically means if you think your breast cancer’s come back.

I don’t feel abandoned like some people do. In fact I’d like to be out of the system even more than I am. I still have stuff going on that keeps me involved one way or another: six-monthly cycles of a bone-hardening drug to reduce the risk of recurrence and lower my risk of developing osteoporosis; occasional physiotherapy for the post-surgery underarm cording that’s still there; occcasional treatment for the lymphoedema I have in my reconstructed breast; and a consultation in either three or six months’ time with the plastic surgeon to check the reconstruction.

So how would you know your breast cancer had come back? Well, just as most primary breast cancers are found by women themselves rather than through routine screening (So you think you’re “breast aware”), most breast cancer recurrences are found by patients between hospital or clinic visits. You make sure you’re aware of the symptoms. If you have them, you get them checked out and you find your cancer has either spread (to your bones or your liver or your brain or your lungs or your lymph nodes or a combination thereof) or it hasn’t. If it hasn’t, I imagine you breath a huge sigh of relief and thank your lucky stars. If it has, it must be one of the worst pieces of news you could possibly get. Your best hope then will be that it hasn’t spread too widely and that treatment is available that will keep it under control for as long as possible. As you’ll know if you’ve read my previous posts on recurrence, recurrent/Stage IV/advanced/secondary/metastatic breast cancer can be treated and you might live with it for years, but it can’t be cured. It’s currently ultimately fatal.

Frustratingly, some of the general symptoms linked to recurrence – being more tired than usual, low energy levels, feeling under the weather, poor appetite, weight loss, back pain, headaches, etc – are also caused by common illnesses or ailments. They can also be similar to ongoing side effects of treatment you’ve had for primary breast cancer, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and to side effects of ongoing treatment, including hormone therapy.

Essentially you’re encouraged to report any symptoms that are new, don’t have an obvious cause or don’t go away. Some women who’re not long out of active treatment panic at every ache or pain and head off to their GP or the breast cancer unit where they were originally treated at the slightest twinge. At the other end of scale, some women initially downplay or dismiss their symptoms only to find the symptoms persist and their cancer has indeed spread. Both approaches are understandable. Let’s see which camp I’ll fall into. I can tell you I’ve already had a lump under one of my scars checked out; it’s scar tissue, “nothing nasty”.

Better to err on the side of caution, I say, and to persist if you really feel something is wrong. A new report on diagnosis of secondary breast cancer from the charity Breast Cancer Care exposes what it says are “shocking failings” in the system– patients being diagnosed in A&E, facing avoidable delays and having concerns ignored by healthcare professionals. The report also says over half (58%) of people with incurable breast cancer did not know how to spot the signs and symptoms of the disease. The infographic here* is aimed at helping people who’ve been successfully treated for primary breast cancer recognize the symptoms.

People are surprised to hear that generally the only routine follow-up test you have after treatment for primary breast cancer is an annual mammogram (or ultrasound too in my case – What does follow-up look like?). Mammograms don’t check for secondary breast cancer. They check, rather, to see whether you’ve developed a new cancer in the other breast or, depending on what surgery you’ve had on the breast that had the tumour in the first place, to see whether it’s come back there.

It’s quite hard to accept that there’s no way of knowing your cancer has spread before symptoms appear. There isn’t a test that can tell whether you have dormant cancer cells resting somewhere in your body, or that those dormant cells are about to activate and start spreading, or indeed have just begun to spread. No amount of tests will stop the cancer spreading and, as Cancer Research UK says, since no test can pick up microscopic cancer spread, a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no spread. In any case, again according to Cancer Research UK, finding out about cancer spread earlier often won’t change how your doctor decides to treat you. I have to say I was surprised to read that.

As I’ve said before (Recurrence 3), you do what you can to reduce the risk of your cancer recurring. You try to live healthily, you keep a watchful eye on your body, you comply with any ongoing therapy, and you go for your annual mammogram and ultrasounds and any other check-ups you’re offered. Ultimately, though, you have to learn to live with the fact that you’ll never know you’re going to remain cancer-free and that those symptoms, if they appear, could be very bad news indeed. At this stage, a year after my diagnosis and just five months out of active treatment, that still seems really unfair.

*This post is dedicated to Jo Taylor, a friend I met through the wonderful social media resource that is Twitter and who created this infographic to help raise awareness of secondary breast cancer. Jo is in her mid-4os, has secondary breast cancer and is a tireless campaigner on issues relating to the disease.  Jo (www.abcdiagnosis.co.uk and @abcdiagnosis on Twitter) has just undergone major surgery and deserves a massive shout-out. Recover and be well, Jo. 

What does follow-up look like?

So what happens now? What does follow-up look like now that I’ve largely been signed off by the consultants who’ve been treating me for varying lengths of time since my breast cancer diagnosis one year ago this very week?

At around the one-year anniversary of my surgery, in mid-December, I’ll have a mammogram and an ultrasound scan on the good boob (if you’ve had cancer in one breast you’re at increased risk of getting it in the other) and an ultrasound scan on the reconstruction (there’s no point in having a mammogram as there’s no, or next to no, breast tissue there). The plan is that I’ll have those tests anually for at least five years.

I’ll have my next and third round of the bone hardening drug, zoledronic acid, in September. I’ve changed from having that every three months to every six and the plan is to continue on that basis for the next couple of years. I’m on letrozole, daily hormone therapy. Letrozole lowers oestrogen levels in the body and so increases your risk of developing osteoporosis. The bone hardening drug is to counteract that. It’s also been shown to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back in post-menopausal women like me.

I’ll have a bone density scan once I’ve been taking letrozole for two years to measure the effect letrozole has had on my bones so far. The scan I had before starting hormone therapy showed I had strong bones to start with, which is good.

And that’s it.

Or is it? This follow-up plan only works, of course, as long as there’s no recurrence. If that happens, all bets are off, as you’ll know from posts I’ve already written. In between your formal follow-up scans and whatever other ongoing treatments and/or appointments you have, you need to stay aware of the symptoms of secondary breast cancer, not panic at every ache or pain but get any worrying signs checked… and hope like hell that the concern that led you to go and get checked was misplaced and that you are in fact still cancer free.

 

 

Post-op progress report No 5: On very intimate terms with three new people

Fifteen sessions of manual lymphatic drainage later and things were looking a lot better. My reconstructed boob was much softer and less swollen, the swelling had all but gone in my right “flank” (I do like that word), the scar tissue that had developed after the operation was softer, and the tethering on the reconstruction had been massaged away to next to nothing. And I was on very intimate terms with three new people… or rather they were on very intimate terms with me.

More or less daily for three weeks in May, I lay there on a treatment bench in a room in the hospital for an hour at a time, naked from the waist up – yes, again (although there was a towel to cover me) – and gave myself over to the ministrations of one of three different MLD therapists. My initial scepticism about what might be achieved turned to admiration, fascination and surprise as the results started to show. And if you thought acupuncture was relaxing (Acupuncture, tennis, a haircut and going back to work), MLD takes you to another plane altogether. Within seconds of the therapist getting to work, I would feel myself starting to drift off. It was awesome.

So what is manual lymphatic drainage and how is it used in the treatment of lymphoedema? For yes, dear reader, that is what I have, in and around the operated area. Well – and all I’ve done here is copy and paste from the MLD UK website – in MLD “the therapist uses a range of specialised and gentle rhythmic pumping techniques to move the excess fluid into an area with a working lymph vessel system. This stimulates the lymphatic vessels and helps move excess fluid away from the swollen area so that it can drain away normally.” With me, the areas that the therapists manipulated were in my neck (that’s what sent me to sleep), my right and left flank, around my left boob, and all the way across the top of my upper chest and various parts of my back.

I felt quite low as the final sessions approached, firstly because the results were so good and secondly because the sessions themselves were so pleasant. I was taught how to do “self MLD” myself and I endeavour to do this every day before I get up to keep the swelling at bay. It’s not the same, though, as having someone else do it, for a whole hour at a time. Somehow it’s easier to cycle half an hour to the hosptial, have an hour-long session and cycle half an hour back home than spend half an hour doing it to yourself in the comfort of your own home. In a perfect world, I’d have my own private MLD therapist for use on demand!

So the reconstruction looks and feels a lot better than it did. But while the swelling is down, it hasn’t gone completely. And the tethering is back, although it is better than it was. Also, while the cording has improved, it’s still there. And it’s all still tender. And, somewhat disconcertingly, over the past week or so there’s been more pain and discomfort in the general area than there’s been for a while. Everything seems to tighten up overnight and while it eases off once I do some rubbing, massaging and stretching, the discomfort persists throughout the day. I don’t know whether it’s post-surgical pain or whether it’s the cording or lymphoedema or something else that’s causing it.

I’m now six-and-a-half months out of surgery and while they warn you that things “take time” to settle down, I somehow – probably naively, or even arrogantly – expected to be pretty much back to normal physically by now. But I hadn’t counted on cording and lymphoedema. The time seems to have flown by but I can’t help but be disappointed that at this stage there are still “issues”. I’m seeing the physiotherapist again the week after next after a bit of a break. That will help, I’m sure. It always does. I also have some more MLD sessions this coming week, which I’m hugely looking forward to.

Other things have also improved since my previous post-op progress report, in April (Post-op progress report No 4: Passing the Velux window test and “running” 5k). The horrible, painful tingling and numbness (chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy to give it its medical name) in my feet has all but gone. I’m so relieved at this. I hardly noticed it when I did my latest 5k Parkrun, yesterday – and when, by the way, I smashed my personal best by more than 40 seconds and came in at well under 29 minutes! I’m back to playing tennis regularly, and am delighted to be back on the ladies doubles team. Whatever problems I have with my arm and chest, it doesn’t affect my running or tennis. And I don’t feel the problems are caused by either.

The scar across my abdomen is continuing to fade – thanks in part to the fact that I massage Bio-Oil into it once a day and twice if I remember and can be bothered.

And I’m loving being back at work.

Over the next two weeks I’ll see the plastic surgeon, the breast surgeon and the radiotherapy consultant for two- and three-month reviews. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell me that as far as the discomfort and swelling is concerned, it’s still “early days” and that with stretching and physio and MLD and more time passing, things could still improve. That’d be good. I guess I’m just impatient.