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.

 

Post-op progress report No 4: Passing the Velux window test and “running” 5k

I’m delighted to report two massive achievements in terms of my physical recovery from my operation and more broadly from my breast cancer treatment in general.

Firstly, on a beautiful, sunny Spring morning a little over a week ago, I managed to open the Velux window in our bedroom in the loft for the first time since my surgery last December. Secondly, just this morning, I ran five kilometres round Tooting Common. This was the first time I’d been out running since finishing chemo last November (and even then I’d only really gone running two or three times since starting chemo in August).

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d get excited about something as trivial as opening a window, I’d have said they were having a laugh. But here we are. We didn’t know then that I’d be recovering now from six months of breast cancer treatment that involved chemotherapy, major surgery (a mastectomy, full lymph node clearance and immediate reconstruction using blood vessels and tissue from my abdomen) and radiotherapy. We also wouldn’t have known that I’d develop something called “cording” in my right arm following surgery that would mean I was simply unable to grasp anything tightly with my right hand or indeed to straighten my arm and exert any level of pressure. This time last year I hadn’t even heard of cording.

Anyway, the fact is that I’d tried and failed to open the Velux window on many occasions since my operation three-and-a-half months ago, on 19th December, so I was delighted when I finally managed it the week before last. It hurt but I’d done it. It meant the cording was loosening up. It still hurts to do it now, but it’s easier every time.

As for my jaunt round the common today, it was very slow but I think it just about qualifies as running*. I’d asked the plastic and reconstructive surgeon at my most recent appointment with her whether I could start running again. She’d said yes so I kind of felt I had to get out there and put my money where my mouth was before I meet her again, on 12th April, for my next six-weekly review. Also, the Saturday morning 5k running phenomenon that is Parkrun has come to Tooting Common and I’ve been gearing myself up to do that. The plastic surgeon had said to double up on the upholstery front if I did go running (It’s not over ’til it’s over) so, this morning, supported by the Sweaty Betty crop top that I bought for my sailing trip across the Atlantic at the end of 2014 (What a difference a year makes) and a sports bra, I set off.

When I look back on those first few days and weeks after the operation when I could hardly move (Post-op progress report No 1: Biting off more than I can chew), I find myself totally in awe of the capacity of the human body to repair itself. (Yes, I know the human body is equally “good” at destroying itself but we’ll set that aside for the moment.)

I knew I was getting stronger as I’d caught myself running up the stairs in the house a few times in recent days. That’s how I went up the stairs as a matter of course before I started treatment but at some point towards the end of chemo, I’d started walking instead. I’d also at some stage gone back to getting out of bed the right way without thinking about it but I’ve gone backwards somewhat on that front recently. The swelling and tenderness in and around the breast area (Breast cancer “reminders”) means that when I wake up now I have to work out which way to move that will cause least discomfort. Also, I have to confess that I’m already stiffening up after my run and am feeling a like an old lady sitting here on the sofa. All in all, though, I’d have to say things are looking up.

*To illustrate just how slowly I ran, I should tell  you that Andy, not the world’s fastest runner, accompanied me round the common and said he’d to make a real effort to keep down (is that the opposite of keep up?) with me!

Breast cancer “reminders”

Quite apart from coping with the emotional side of having had breast cancer, there are plenty of physical reminders to make sure I don’t forget what I’ve been through any time soon.

I was thinking I would list the various side effects I’m experiencing in order of annoyance but that’s hard to do. I have different types and levels of pain or discomfort in different areas and each side effect is annoying in a different way. Here goes.

Peripheral neuropathy. I’m still experiencing pain – numbness, tingling and throbbing – in the balls of my feet and toes as a result of the nerve ending damage caused by the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel. This comes and goes, ie it’s not constant, and while it is improving, on some days – if I’ve done a lot of walking, say, or have worn heels – it can get pretty bad. I can’t remember when it last woke me up at night but it’s usually the first thing I’m aware of physically when I wake up in the morning. This can take up to a year to get better, although in some cases it’s permanent. So I’m guess I’m playing a waiting game.

Post-surgical pain. I still have pain – numbness, tingling (but different from the feelings in my feet) and a burning sensation – in the upper inner part of my right arm and what feels like muscle pain where the reconstructed breast meets my chest and below and behind my armpit. This is much less painful than the peripheral neuropathy but it is annoying, as this pain is more or less constant so I’m aware of it most of the time. I’m pretty sure the muscle pain – or what feels like muscle pain – has got worse in the past few days. It’s at its worst when I wake up, especially if I’ve rolled on to my right side while I’ve been sleeping.

The numbness and tingling is caused by nerve damage that happens during surgery to remove lymph nodes from the armpit area. The effects subside as you heal – within about three months for most people – although they can last or become worse months after the surgery. The numbness and tingling is definitely not as bad as it was but it’s still annoying. Another waiting game.

Breast lymphoedema. I saw the radiation oncologist on Monday and, while the cellulitis (It went downhill from there) has evidently cleared up nicely, she mentioned the dreaded L word – yes, lymphoedema – with regard to the persistent swelling in the breast area. Early treatment is recommended to help prevent hardening of the tissues and reduce the risk of you getting cellulitis (please, not again!). So I’m to have a course of manual lymphatic drainage (up to fifteen sessions over up to six weeks), a very gentle form of massage that allows the lymphatic fluid that’s collecting and causing the swelling to be redirected to – untouched and undamaged  – lymph vessels in the vicinity where the fluid can drain away more easily. Also, later today, I’m to be fitted for a lovely compression bra. I’m assuming this will be an even sturdier version of the post-surgery bras that I’ve really never stopped wearing since my op on 19th December – other than for a few days during radiotherapy when I had cellulitis and a bad skin reaction to the radiotherapy – because there’s always been some sort of swelling or another. Compression treatment for lymphoedema puts pressure on the area where you have swelling, and the pressure helps the lymph to flow through the lymph vessels. It also acts as an extra force for the muscles to work against, which helps the fluid to drain out of the area.

The swelling is not painful in itself, I suspect mainly because I have no feeling in most of the area in question. At rest, however, my inner upper arm rests against part of the swollen area and this aggravates the already tender upper arm.

By the way, breast lymphoedema I can cope with (Fear of lymphoedema); please let it not spread to my arm.

Cording. Now that the cellulitis has cleared up, I can start having physiotherapy again on the cording, this hardening of the lymph vessels to form tight bands under the skin from the chest or under arm down to the elbow and beyond that can happen after breast cancer surgery involving the axillary lymph nodes. The cording is not painful as such but, again, that’s because I have limited sensation in the affected area. I also know to limit my movements so that it doesn’t hurt where I do have feeling. It’s only painful in those areas when I forget and try to stretch further than I am able to. With physio and the arm and shoulder mobility exercises I’m continuing to do every day, the cording should go over the next few months.

Hip-to-hip scar. I was really nervous about the potential consequences of the surgery to get the fat and blood vessels from my abdomen for my reconstruction. While the immediate aftermath was tough, it’s the part that’s giving me the least trouble now in terms of ongoing post-surgical pain and/or discomfort. The scar that runs from one hipbone to the other has healed well really well (there’s just one small area of less than an inch long where it’s a bit messy) and while the surrounding skin can still feel very tight and hard in some places, there’s no pain. Discomfort, yes, but not pain. I’ve been shown how to massage the area above the scar to loosen the skin up and I do abdominal stretching and strengthening excercises at least twice daily. Things should continue to improve.

Lost toenails. Chemo played havoc with my nails, especially my toenails (Note to self – keep your toes covered when trying on shoes). The nails on my two big toes are in the process of growing out and the nails I lost on four other toes are growing back in*.

I think that’s it on the physical side effects front.

And then there are the drugs:

Hormone tablets. I take one tablet of letrozole every day and will do so for the next five years, when I’ll move on to a different hormone therapy, for another five years. I count myself lucky in that I seem to be tolerating letrozole very well; I have no side effects to speak of.20160311_100210

Calcium and Vitamin D supplements. Letrozole can cause osteoporosis; the calcium and Vitamin D supplements I take daily are to counteract the effects of the letrozole in this regard.

Iron tablets. I’m still taking these three times a day for post-operative anaemia. I stop taking them in a few days, three months after my op.

Zoledronic acid. I’m to have my next cycle of the bone hardening drug, zoledronic acid, this coming Monday. Thereafter I’m to have it every six months for as long as I’m on letrozole. This drug – and other drugs of its kind (bisphosphonates) – is used in the treatment of post-menopausal women with early-stage breast cancer as it’s been shown to lower the risk of them developing osteoporosis and of breast cancer spreading to the bones. This treatment is given via an iv drip in the chemo unit at the clinic.

Now none of the lingering side effects I’ve described above is so painful that I have to take painkillers. And I’m otherwise quite well, if still pretty whacked. And it’s still early days and hopefully everything will get better over time. But for the moment these things are annoying and they do cause pain and/or discomfort. They – and the drugs and exercises that I still need to take or do – are obvious reminders of what my body’s been through over the past seven months. I used to think I’d been quite lucky in terms of physical side effects. Reading back through this latest post, now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s all relative and no-one said it would be easy. One thing is certain, though. Regardless of how I deal with the emotional side of things, physically I’m really not going to forget any time soon that I had breast cancer, am I?

*My fingernails are looking great, I’m relieved to report.

It’s not over ’til it’s over

The hospital-based phase of my breast cancer treatment has finished but there’s still lots going on. My final radiotherapy session was a week ago now (Bike 8 – Car 7. Victory is mine) but by tomorrow afternoon I’ll have been back at the centre every day this week except today. Given that I started radiotherapy on 4th February, that means I’ll have been there every weekday – including two days as an in-patient – for precisely a month. No wonder I’m tired. And there’s more to come.

On Monday, I had my post-radiotherapy appointment with the consultant oncologist who organised the radiotherapy treatment. Also on Monday, I had to have new dressings put on those parts of the irradiated area that are worst affected by the radiation. On Tuesday, I had a six-week check-up with the plastic and reconstructive surgeon. On Wednesday, I was back at the radiotherapy department to be checked over and to have fresh dressings applied. I’ll be there again tomorrow for the same.

Let’s start with the “radiotherapy-induced skin reaction”. This is really common in people receiving radiotherapy (Sunburnt backs, patchwork dressings and crop tops (Radiotherapy part 2)) and can involve redness (yes), dryness (yes), itchiness (yes) and skin breakdown, ie cracking or weeping (not quite, although one or two areas are still at risk). The reason they’re keeping a close eye on things is that radiotherapy side effects can continue to develop after treatment ends and indeed can be at their most severe around 7-10 days after your final session. While the radiographers don’t think the skin will break down now (if it did, I’d be at increased risk of infection), they’re continuing to take precautions until the 10 days are up. Better safe than sorry, especially with my record on infections.

On to Monday’s meeting with the oncologist. She examined the irradiated area and said she was “hopeful” the infection that had me in hospital for two days on iv antibiotics was resolved (It went downhill from there). I finished my course of antibiotics later on Monday and there’s been no flare-up, so it’s good news on that front.

There’s still swelling/fluid build-up in the reconstruction and under my arm and the cording  (where the lymph vessels have hardened following the removal of the axillary lymph nodes) there has got worse. The cording now stretches from where the reconstruction meets my chest to past the crook of my arm. The oncologist suggested that a massage treatment called manual lymphatic drainage or MLD might help with the swelling. From what I can tell, this could require sessions three times a week or more for up to three weeks. So much for finishing treatment. Except now, of course, instead of treating the cancer, we’re treating the side effects of cancer treatment. Major difference. The physiotherapy I was having – and loving – for the cording is on hold until the skin reactions from the radiotherapy clear up. The MLD wouldn’t start until then either.

As for the plastic surgeon, there’s good news there in that she didn’t seem overly concerned at the appearance of the reconstruction and surrounds… despite the swelling, redness, inflamed scars and indentations. She did agree it was not the “lovely” – my word, not hers – thing that it was in the aftermath of the operation. However, she said reassuringly that while it might take six months (yes, six months!) for everything to settle down and will likely require a second round of surgery to tidy things up, “I don’t think you’ll have any problems” in the longer term. Phew. My claim to fame is that she took a couple of photos for her collection. She didn’t often get to see her reconstructions like this, she said, ie in their full, immediate post-radiation, scarlet glory! I’m really not used to having this part of my anatomy photographed but I was happy to oblige.

The abdominal scar has healed really well. I got some advice on how best to massage the area above the scar to loosen it off (it’s still quite tight) and on scar care in general. Also, not that I did that that much of it before, but I can start running again. I’ve to wear two bras, though, a regular sports bra and a crop top!

Next week is shaping up to be a lot quieter on the appointments front. Hopefully the radiographers will sign me off at the beginning of the week and then I’ll have nothing until the following week when I’ve got appointments with the two consultant oncologists involved in my care. The oncologist responsible for the radiotherapy – a clinical oncologist – will review how the skin reactions and swelling are looking and perhaps I’ll get an idea of when I can restart physio and perhaps start this new MLD treatment. The oncologist who’s been responsible for all my drug treatment to date – a medical oncologist – will arrange a date for me to come in to the chemo unit for my next cycle of the bone-hardening drug, zoledronic acid (Breast cancer does indeed “come with baggage”). I’m to have this initially every three months and then every six months during the five years I’m on letrozole hormone therapy. I had the first cycle with my final chemo session last November. It’s hard to believe that was only three months ago. It seems like an absolute age.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I had sticky toffee pudding for dessert

I’d kind of regretted not having had the chocolate fudge cake that was on offer for dessert in hospital on Tuesday evening (It went downhill from there). I’d chosen the fresh fruit option. So when the time came to choose a dessert for lunch the following day, I decided I’d ignore the healthy eating bug that’s taken hold of me and have the sticky toffee pudding. 20160217_084705

I marked the box on the form… but seconds later the bug got the better of me and I decided I’d have fresh fruit salad instead. I scored out my  original mark  and was just about to tick the fruit salad box when the nurse came in and said it was time to take some blood. My heart sank. “Right,” I thought, “this is no time for self denial. I’m having the sticky toffee pudding.” Thus the messy order form you see in the photo.

The words “We just need to take some blood” are guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of those of us who have veins in our arms that have been damaged by chemotherapy, and I’d already had an unpleasant experience on the Monday night, when I was admitted.

Chemo drugs are pretty potent (as you know) and the veins that have been used during your course of treatment can collapse or become hard (not sure if I’ve mentioned that lovely factoid before). The obvious vein you’d use in my left arm is currently pretty fragile (they can recover), and it’s not always easy to find a “good” vein to take blood from and/or to insert a cannula into. With me, there are now even fewer options than we might otherwise have since it’s recommended that, if you’ve had lymph node removal surgery – as I have – you don’t have blood taken from or drugs injected into veins in the operated arm. It’s to do with reducing your risk of developing lymphoedema. For the moment at least, therefore, we’re only using the left arm and the back of the left hand for these types of procedures.

In the end it was fine. It isn’t always. There’s bruising on the back of my left hand after the cannula they’d inserted into a vein there on Monday night to administer the anitbiotics had to be removed because it was causing swelling and discomfort.  All went well with the second site they chose.

These things happen and are over in the course of a few minutes and the nurses are never anything other than concerned, caring and gentle, but it can still be quite traumatic for the patient.

So now you know why I went for the sticky toffee pudding. Very nice it was too.

A busy week with welcome news – “no mass identified” and “no further surgery necessary”

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 cr_115996restricts 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?