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.

 

 

 

 

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Acupuncture, tennis, a haircut and going back to work

Good things are happening.

The biggest thing to report on the physical front – and this is massive – is that the peripheral neuropathy in my feet that was caused by the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel has improved dramatically over the past month.

Don’t get me wrong; that painful throbbing and numbness in the balls of my feet and toes is still there, but to a much, much lesser degree. It’s nowhere near as painful as it was and it’s now only very rarely so bad that I have to sit down and rub my feet to try and ease the discomfort. I used to have to do that pretty regularly. It no longer wakes me up at night. In fact sometimes it’s not even there when I wake up. This is still slightly disconcerting as I’d got so used to it; I wake up and lie there wondering what’s wrong and then I remember and savour the fact that it’s no longer there. It’s a lovely (non)feeling.

Now here’s the thing. This easing off of the chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy has coincided with my starting acupuncture. I know those of you who know me well will do a double take on reading that but, yes, I’ve had three sessions to date and I absolutely love it. Regardless of whether or not that has anything at all to do with the improvement in the nerve damage in my feet, I have to say I have never in my life felt as relaxed as I feel during those sessions. I have them through a lovely charity, The Haven. I did wonder what I’d let myself in for when in one of the sessions I felt a needle being placed in the middle of my forehead right where a “third eye” might be if we had one (think Cyclops), but by then it was far too late. It was half-way through a session and, anyway, I was so relaxed by that point that I really almost didn’t care.

Ironically, the peripheral neuropathy is now at its worst when I’m running. The last five minutes of this Saturday’s 5k Parkrun were a bit of a struggle.

There’s plenty more good news. I’ve been back on the tennis courts twice now, albeit playing with the soft balls children play with when they’re learning. You won’t be surprised to hear that it felt really, really, really – I could go on – good. It was fine in terms of my arm and shoulder and abdomen (where the big scar is), both when I was playing and in the following days. On a related matter, the cording in my chest and arm is really loosening up. While certain stretches are still painful, I’ve more or less regained full mobility in my arm and shoulder.

I’d asked the consultant who’s in charge of managing my lymphoedema when I met her a couple of weeks ago whether I should play. The swelling is currently only in the reconstructed boob and surrounding area (Looking forward to a “much more symmetrical overall shape”). If it develops in your arm, the consultant said, it’s as likely to be caused by (over)reaching for a tennis ball as it is from lifting a too-heavy shopping bag. Her advice then? “Do what you enjoy.” That was just the encouragement I needed. It basically confirmed what the consultant on the radiotherapy side of things had said a few months ago (Should I play tennis? “Yes, just don’t play Federer.”). A few days later, I enlisted my lovely doubles partner to knock up with me and the following week the rest of the stalwarts of the ladies doubles team I used to play for also obliged. (Thanks, Mary M, Mary P, Monica and Julie, and thanks to coach Steve who suggested the soft balls! Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m whacking those hard yellow balls again and back playing in the team.)

There’s more. Five months on from finishing chemo, I need a haircut. That’s happening later today. And this last one is really huge… I start back at work tomorrow. It’s time.

That’s about it on the physical front. What about emotionally? Well, thoughts of recurrence are no longer always the first thing that pop into my head when I wake up in the morning. When they do, I tell them to sod off. Sometimes it works. That’s a big improvement.