Post-op progress report No 6: If this is as good as it gets, I’ll take it

I was at the cinema one evening in late October and towards the end of the film I became aware of something really weird. A couple of hours had gone by and I hadn’t felt the need to make any of the stretches or movements I’d been used to making regularly throughout the day to ease the feelings of discomfort in and around the area where I’d had breast cancer surgery more than ten months earlier.

Basically, nothing had felt wrong for at least two hours. I hadn’t felt the need to lift my right shoulder up and back to stretch out the tightening around the scarring in the area where my reconstructed right breast – which they made out of my tummy fat immediately after my mastectomy – meets my chest. I hadn’t felt the need to lift my right arm back behind my head and straighten it out to ease out the tightening or cording that’s still there in the armpit area where I had lymph nodes removed. I hadn’t felt the need to rub the inner part of my upper right arm to lessen the feeling of numbness and tingling I still have there, also a consequence of the lymph node removal surgery. Finally, I hadn’t felt the need to stretch out the tightness I still feel from time to time around the horizontal hip-to-hip scar where they took skin, fat and blood vessels for the breast reconstruction.

Ever since that evening at the cinema (My Scientology Movie, if you’re wondering), I’ve been noticing ever-longer periods throughout the day when all I can say is that nothing feels wrong and I’m not aware of any discomfort anywhere on my whole body. I’m still not used to it but, almost a year on from surgery (The basics), that’s what I call a result.

I wrote a blog for the Macmillan cancer support charity in mid-September on the importance of exercise during my treatment and ongoing recovery. I read back through it recently (What do you mean I look like a wreck?) and was amazed at how much things have improved physically even in the past two months or so.

So where are we now? Well I do still stretch out my shoulder and arm every so often during the day, though nowhere near as regularly as before. It’s far less uncomfortable than it was. I’m still having monthly physio sessions and those really help; I also still do stretching and strengthening exercises. The feeling is gradually coming back in that upper arm area; I still give it a good pummelling every now and then. The uncomfortable swelling in and around the operated area that was diagnosed as lymphoedema has all but gone; I still do a special massage in the affected area to help prevent the build-up of lymph fluid. Sometimes I’m aware of a general feeling of mild discomfort in the whole area but, more often than not, I’m not aware of anything.

What else? Well it’s only in the past couple of months that I’ve been able to sleep on either side or indeed on my front. Being able to sleep in whatever position I want after so many months of having to sleep on my back with my right arm stretched out behind my head is a really big deal. Having to stretch out the area around my abdominal scar is not a big deal; what 53-year-old woman is going to complain about having a tight tummy?!

There’s more. It’s been a good while since I’ve experienced anything like that fatigue I would feel from time to time that would make it hard to move very far from the sofa. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it wasn’t nice. Finally, I caught myself the other day running down the stairs on the London underground and diving onto a train. I’d stopped doing that as I was scared of falling or bumping into someone (Sod the compression bra, it’s summer!). Clearly not any more!

All in all, then, there’s been quite some improvement in recent months.

There’s stuff going on that’s related to treatment rather than to the surgery I had last December, but none of it’s too bad. The chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy I had in my feet really is all but gone, although I still get some low-level tingling and numbness when I run or play tennis. It’s either that or my trainers are too tight! I’m tolerating letrozole, the daily anti-hormone therapy that I’m on, well. Letrozole can bring on hot flushes; for a couple of months these would appear out of nowhere but they’ve now subsided.

The “trigger thumb” that I’ve developed in my right hand is persisting. This is a known but rare side effect of letrozole, and it’s a bit of a drag. I can’t bend my right thumb and I’ve had to change the grip I use to serve at tennis and the way I hold a pen. My serve is neither better nor worse but my handwriting has gone from bad to appalling. It’s hard to do things where you need to apply pressure with your thumb – such as opening bottles and jars, tying shoe laces or using a grater – but it’s not the end of the world. I guess I could/should get treatment for it; instead I’ve just got used to it.

Finally, I sometimes wake up with stiff fingers on my right hand and my knuckles on that hand are a bit swollen – letrozole again. My rings don’t fit any more, which is a shame as I used to wear my late grandmother’s wedding ring and a signet ring I got for my 16th birthday on that hand. There’s no other joint-stiffening to complain of at the moment (I do have a painful left hip, but I’m hoping it’s nothing more sinister than a sports injury; I’ll get it checked out if it doesn’t go away).

This is my sixth post-op progress report and I reckon it could well be my last. The consultant breast surgeon told me that on the physical front we’d be doing well if I got back to 95% of what I was before. I don’t know quite how you measure that but if the way I am now is as good as it gets, I’ll settle for that and be quite happy. Now if someone could just give me a guarantee the cancer won’t come back, things would be just fine. But they can’t, of course. I don’t believe my “recurrence anxiety” will ever go away but in the meantime there’s no doubting these physical improvements are reasons to be cheerful.

 

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What do you mean I look like a wreck?

This post isn’t new. I wrote it in mid-September for the Macmillan cancer support charity on the importance of exercise during my breast cancer treatment and ongoing recovery. I read back through it the other day and realised – to my astonishment, really – that nearly 11 months on I’m still seeing improvements from the surgery I had last December. Details will follow but in the meantime I decided I wanted this on my own blog for the record. I really like it; it’s nice and upbeat and it makes me smile. 

Here it is…

When the consultant breast surgeon greeted me at my most recent appointment with the words, “You look like a wreck”, I was more than a little confused. It seemed completely out of character and was, I thought, downright rude. More importantly, though, I was feeling really well physically and just couldn’t fathom why he’d say such a thing.

I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve been in years. Since finishing pretty gruelling treatment for breast cancer nearly seven months ago, I’ve been eating healthily, I’ve cut down on my alcohol consumption, and I’m exercising loads. As 53-year-old women go – never mind one who’s relatively recently been through cancer treatment – I think I’m doing pretty well.

“A wreck?” I said, trying not to sound put out. “But I feel great.”mo-parkrun-edit-2

“Not a wreck,” the consultant said, amused that I could think he’d say such a thing. “A rake! You’re fading away.”

I laughed at the misunderstanding and reassured the doctor that I was not in fact fading away. Since my diagnosis in July 2015, I have, however, lost the six, seven or eight kilos that I’d put on gradually over the previous decade. The consultant’s comment illustrates just how much I’ve taken on board the recommendations for healthy living that you’re advised to follow when you finish cancer treatment. Doing certain things, you’re told, reduces the risk of your cancer coming back. I’m at high risk of recurrence, so it’s perhaps not surprising that I’m trying to do everything I can to lessen that risk.

Initially I was ambivalent about the lifestyle changes I was making. I felt they were driven by fear of recurrence rather than by a genuine desire for change. But now I’m positively enjoying being fitter and healthier than I was pre-diagnosis.

I’m loving the extra exercise. I’ve always been sporty – tennis and cycling have been part of my life for years – but for the first time in my life I’m enjoying running. I’ve even joined a local running club.

I invariably feel better after exercise. During treatment itself, on more than one occasion, I felt it was my saviour. There were days when I’d be feeling tired and low and I’d force myself to cycle to the hospital or clinic appointment rather than drive. During radiotherapy I challenged myself to cycle to more sessions than I drove to. It wasn’t always easy, but I won – just! No matter how I felt when I left the house, I always felt better by the time I got to my destination.

When I did my first local 5K Parkrun in mid-April six weeks after finishing radiotherapy, I was both relieved and elated. Around 300 people did the same run that morning. I was amongst the slowest. Running the same route at the same time as all these other people, however – and knowing thousands of others were doing exactly the same thing in Parkruns up and down the country – in some way made me feel I was back in the real world after having been in some sort of parallel universe since I was diagnosed in July 2015.

I had Stage 3a breast cancer and went through six-and-a-half months of treatment that comprised eight sessions of chemotherapy, a right-side mastectomy with immediate own-tissue reconstruction, lymph node clearance and 16 sessions of radiotherapy. It takes a long time to recover from that kind of treatment. The chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy that I had in my feet is pretty much gone, but I still get the odd niggle, especially when I run (ironically). My upper arm on the operated side is still numb and there’s a feeling of discomfort in my chest and armpit that never quite seems to go away. There’s a little swelling in and around the operated area that’s been diagnosed as lymphoedema. Some days even now, I can feel really fatigued and have to take things easy. I’m on letrozole anti-hormone therapy and if I stay sitting for too long I feel my joints stiffening up. Hot flushes appear out of nowhere. In my right hand I’ve developed trigger thumb, a painful and annoying condition that can be caused by low oestrogen levels, which is precisely what letrozole is designed to achieve.

There’s no doubt that exercise helped and is helping me deal with both the physical and emotional effects of having had breast cancer. Everyone has their own way of coping, and exercise, it seems, is mine. There’s no downside as far as I can tell. I’m aware that what is a huge challenge for some is a breeze for others and vice versa. It’s about knowing what’s right for you and about setting achievable goals and not being overambitious. Exercising with friends or in a group can help.

For me, exercising is empowering. I’m fitter, I’m healthier, and over the past few months I’ve met some great new people. On the recurrence front, I know there’s no guarantee my cancer won’t come back. Exercising is a massive help in keeping in check my fear that it might.