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.

 

Defying gravity – well, one of them is

I need to say at the outset that this seems such a crazy thing to be writing about. I never thought in a million years that I’d be considering having a breast lift. On just one side. You are allowed to laugh. Believe me, I have, lots. That in itself, I guess, is something to be thankful for.

OK, background first. After finishing four months of chemotherapy for breast cancer, I had a right-side mastectomy last December followed by an immediate “own-tissue” reconstruction known as a DIEP flap reconstruction. This is a major operation involving complex microsurgery in which skin and fat is taken from your abdominal area and used to build a natural-looking breast after mastectomy.

A key benefit of an own-tissue, or autologous, reconstruction over an implant is that it changes with the rest of your body as you gain or lose weight and as you get older.

At least that’s the idea, but here’s the rub. It seems that the radiotherapy I had after surgery to reduce the risk of my cancer coming back has robbed the reconstruction of at least some of the elasticity it otherwise would have had. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy with it and it looks great. Don’t just take my word for it. I had an ultrasound scan on it recently and the doctor performing the procedure remarked admiringly as she rolled the probe over it that it looked “just like a real breast”. I almost said “Thanks” but stopped myself. After all, the credit’s not mine. The doctor asked who’d done it and we agreed they’d done an amazing job.

It does indeed look “real”, but the radiotherapy damage means it may not change very much from here on in. I met with the consultant plastic surgeon earlier this month, three months after our previous appointment, and she said what I’d already pretty much worked out for myself, that the symmetry that we hoped would come with time (Looking forward to a “much more symmetrical overall shape”) was not now going to happen… at least not without surgical intervention.

Things have undoubtedly continued to improve since I last saw the surgeon. The skin tethering of around an inch long down the right-hand side of the reconstruction and the scar tissue where the underarm lymph nodes were removed are less pronounced. And there’s very little – if any – swelling left in the reconstruction. But I’m pretty lopsided. And let’s face it, that’s only going to get worse. I’m 53 and I breast-fed my two children. The reconstruction may be defying gravity but the real boob on the left is most certainly not!

I wrote back in April about the potential side effects of radiotherapy on reconstructed breasts (Side effects you really don’t want to think about) so I can’t say I didn’t know this could happen.

I’m quite conflicted about the whole thing. I know I said before that I could live with less than a perfect match. The practical side of me knows the main thing was getting rid of my breast cancer and that there’s more to life than having symmetrical boobs. There’s no denying, however, that it would be nice to be matching once again. Also, the inquisitive side of me would love to see what is in fact possible. As I said to the plastic surgeon, one part of me says why bother doing anything at all, but another part of me is tempted to give you free rein to do whatever you think would be appropriate. That would be a lift on the left and some fat grafting on the right, with fat taken from my hips, to try and even out the area on the reconstruction with the tethering and the scar tissue nearer my underarm.

The pull to be like you were before is quite strong. I know that sounds strange coming from me, given that I really did very seriously consider choosing the “flat” option. I have nothing but admiration for those women who actively make the choice to go flat and stay flat and who are, as it were, “flat and proud”. I totally get the explanation that American comedian Tig Notaro gave when she decided against reconstruction after her double mastectomy. Why on earth would you go through such intense procedures just to have fake boobs, she said. I know there’s a lot more to it than that – and I mean a lot – but I get what she means.

My own decision on whether to have revision surgery or not would be a bit easier if I didn’t have what’s known in the business as wait for it… “good in-bra symmetry”.

It would also be easier – and this is key – if they hadn’t made such a good job of the reconstruction in the first place. That is so clearly not a complaint but it helps explain my dilemma. For example, there are no visible scars on the reconstruction. The scars are in the “intrammary fold”, where the breast and chest meet, so you can’t normally see them. With a breast lift, or mastopexy to give it its proper name, you inevitably have visible scars. It depends on the type of lift you have, but if you want to know exactly where they can be, click here.

I know I heal well – if you saw how faint the horizontal hip-to-hip scar I have from the original reconstruction operation is now, almost 11 months on, you’d see what I mean. The scars following a breast lift would fade in time too, but they’re unlikely ever to disappear completely. So do I really want to disfigure my good boob in the first place? Especially when there are no scars visible on the reconstruction. Then again, I have scars in lots of other places and I’m quite fond of them. They all tell a story – from the two big circular burn scars on my lower left leg from a childhood run-in with a radiator to the one under my chin from just a few years ago when the dry cleaning I’d just picked up got caught in the front wheel of my bike and I flew off over the handlebars in spectacular fashion.

One of the big things revision surgery can be for is nipple reconstruction. Since I had a nipple-sparing mastectomy, that’s not relevant in my case. Also, sometimes the abdominal scar needs revising; mine doesn’t. Or lumps of dead fat tissue develop in the reconstruction that need removing; I have none of those either.

But there’s more in the against camp. With a breast lift, there’s a small risk of reduced or complete loss of sensation in the nipple/areola, often temporary, sometimes permanent. Given that there’s no sensation at all in any part of the whole reconstruction (On very intimate terms with three new people), I do wonder if that’s a risk too far. In addition there’s the recovery period to consider, and the inherent complications of surgery. You’ve also got to bear in mind that nature will again take its course once you’ve had the lift; that lifted breast ain’t gonna stay lifted forever.

Anyway, I don’t have to decide any time soon. Part of me says wait a while and go for a lift when the good breast really has gone south! Or perhaps I’ll end up not doing anything at all. In the meantime I think I’ll park this particular issue and just get on with living life. And on this particular Sunday morning, that means a league match down at the tennis club. Wish me luck!

 

Looking forward to a “much more symmetrical overall shape”

At my latest meeting with the consultant plastic surgeon, we more or less concluded that if the various ongoing issues relating to my reconstructed boob resolve as well as she hopes over the coming months, there may well be no need for further surgery.

That would indeed be a result. Don’t take it personally, I said, but I’d be perfectly happy for you not to operate on me again. In fact, in the run-up to the appointment, I’d pretty much come round to thinking that, regardless of how things “resolve”, I’d really rather not have any surgery that’s not entirely medically necessary. I might change my mind, but that’s how I feel at the moment.

With the procedure I had, a DIEP flap reconstruction, the surgeon(s) build a new breast from skin and fat taken from your abdomen and transferred to your chest using complex microsurgery. In my case it was done immediately following my mastectomy, last December. It’s not usually a case of “one and done” (nice phrase); there is nearly always a later surgery to make adjustments.

Here’s the state of play. There’s swelling caused by lymphoedema in the right breast and right “flank”. (Flank? It makes me sound like a horse.) There are dents caused by skin tethering in a couple of places and there’s scar tissue where the lymph nodes were removed. The plastic surgeon and I compared how things are now with how they looked in the photos she took at our previous appointment at the beginning of March (It’s not over ’til it’s over). There are definite improvements on the tethering and scarring front, but things aren’t exactly a great match, if you get my drift. In the words of the consultant who’s managing the lymphoedema treatment I’m about to start – and I’m aware this might be too much information for some of you, but hey ho – the right breast is “elevated and very swollen”. Things even up a bit if I hold my right shoulder down and my left shoulder up, but you can’t exactly walk around like that all day, can you? Seriously though, when I’m dressed, you don’t notice the lopsidedness (or perhaps you do and people are just too polite to say).

Re the swelling, some of my more fitted tops are so tight across the chest on the right side that they’re pretty much unwearable. Add to the mix the god-awful bras (The least sexy washing line ever) that I still have to wear. These are so huge and cover so much flesh that if I wear anything more than the most modest of tops, I risk flashing what has to be the ugliest lingerie ever. All in all, my above-the-waist clothing options are currently rather limited.

This probably sounds a lot worse than it is. Even with the various issues, the reconstruction is amazing.

On 5th May, I’m starting an intensive course of lymphoedema treatment – daily one-hour sessions for 15 consecutive working days of a specialised, gentle type of skin massage or manipulation that’s aimed at reducing the swelling. It’s hoped this manual lymphatic drainage will lead to the tethering releasing and the dents filling out, to whatever degree; it might also help with the tight scar tissue. The ongoing physiotherapy I’m having should also help. If this all happens, the plastic surgeon reckons “the overall shape will be much more symmetrical and it is likely you won’t need any further surgery”. Yay!

And if things don’t resolve as well as we hope? Well, if the swelling goes and I’m still lopsided and dented, I could have two procedures, a lift on the left (yes, really) to make it match the new one on the right and fat grafting on the right to get rid of the dents. This latter procedure would involve taking fat tissue from my thighs or buttocks (either way, ouch) by liposuction, processing the tissue into liquid and injecting it into the reconstruction. And women have this done voluntarily?

If the swelling and dents don’t go? Let’s just wait and see.

On the breast lift front, I have to say I still feel much as I did when I was considering whether to have reconstruction in the first place (“Are you happy with the size?”), ie that I really don’t feel comfortable messing with the good one. I think I could live with them being less than a perfect match. If my various scars needed tidying up or there were lumps (of dead fat tissue) in the reconstruction that needed removing, I’m sure I’d be keener to go ahead with a Phase II. The scars have healed really well and there are no lumps in the reconstruction. So as things stand, I’m hoping I end with Phase I. That has to be a good result for the surgeons too, to have done such a good job in one go – a “one and done”.

It’s not just about appearance, though. How you feel about it emotionally is also massively important, as is how it feels physically and how you recover from the operation. The latter two points obviously influence the first. I’m kind of surprised that I’ve given over so many column inches on this blog to how it looks. It think it’s partly because my mind boggles at the complexity of the medical procedure and the skill of the operating surgeons. I look at it and think what an amazing piece of human engineering. Importantly, it’s also a reminder of how well my cancer treatment went (A busy week with welcome news – “no mass identified” and “no further surgery necessary”). Also, I remember just how good it looked in the weeks immediately after the operation; whatever my expectations were, they were far exceeded.

I’m very happy with things and don’t regret my decision to go down the reconstruction route. It was a tough choice (Decisions you never dreamt you’d have to make). There’s no sensation at all in the breast or nipple. This was always going to be the case, but it takes a lot of getting used to, believe me*. As for recovery, well four months on and – removing the lymphoedema from the equation – things are good. There’s still a slight ache inside where the breast meets my chest when I wake in the mornings but it soon goes away. I feel a pulling inside when I make certain movements, and that feels strange (that could be the cording, though, rather than have to do with the reconstruction or mastectomy).  The area surrounding the reconstruction is still a strange mix of tender, numb, tingly and achy. That all causes more or less constant low-level pain and discomfort and while it’s annoying, it’s bearable. That’s not to say I wouldn’t love it all to go away. Hopefully it will. It’s much better than it was.

Yesterday, I met the therapists who’ll be doing the MLD and had a bit of a taster session – I can’t wait to write about that! They seem confident they’ll get results. I next see the plastic surgeon in early July. We’ll see how things look – and feel – then.

*This lack of sensation – most of the nerves are cut during mastectomy and reconstruction and the area becomes numb – is very bizarre. When you touch the reconstruction with your own hand, it feels much like your other boob (at least it did before all the swelling). If someone else touches it – no sniggering now, we’re all adults! 😉 – you feel absolutely nothing. Now the following info is new to me and I just have to share. The nerves have the potential to regrow as the nerves in the flap that was transferred from your tummy regenerate within the chest. If sensation is going to come back, though, it’s likely to take a year or two. Interestingly, it seems that if you have no sensation in your breast, you may get feeling back in the area next to your breast. Now check this, folks, “some women find that the armpit next to the reconstructed breast becomes tremendously sensitive to touch and is a new erogenous zone”. Come back in a couple of years and I’ll let you know how it’s been for me.

Side effects you really don’t want to think about (Radiotherapy Part 3)

I know it’s seven weeks since I finished my course of radiotherapy but I really feel I need to get this off my chest. The potential long-term side effects of breast cancer radiotherapy are something else. There, I’ve said it.

At my first appointment with her, the consultant oncologist in charge of my radiotherapy explained why this treatment was being recommended for me. She talked me through the proposed treatment plan, the practicalities involved in planning treatment and the treatment itself, and, of course, the potential short- and long-term side effects. She then offered me a consent form for signing… or not. I did ask if people refused treatment. Yes, the consultant replied, but not in cases such as yours where radiotherapy has such a clear benefit in terms of reducing the risk of recurrence and improving overall prognosis. There was never any doubt that I would sign.

As with other breast cancer treatments I’ve had – chemo, surgery – or am continuing to have – hormone therapy – radiotherapy has lots of potential nasty side effects. Some are immediate, and some are more long-term and can occur months or years after treatment. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll be aware of some of the short-term ones: skin redness, tiredness, swelling and tenderness of the reconstructed breast, swelling from fluid build-up in the treated area, etc. The potential longer-term side effects are much scarier. That said, they’re less likely – in some cases much less likely – to occur than the short-term ones. They include shrinkage and firmness of the reconstructed breast, increased risk of second malignancy, rib fracture, lung scarring and a 10-15% risk of lymphoedema.

Let’s go through them. Around one in ten women who have radiotherapy following reconstruction experience shrinkage and hardening months or years after treatment. What a nightmare that must be. I agonised over whether to have a reconstruction or not and in the end decided to go ahead with one that involved transplanting abdominal fat and required major surgery. It was a massive deal. Nearly four months on, there are some “issues”, but it looks like the result will be good in the end. You really don’t want to wake up one day in five years’ time to find it’s shrunk and feels like concrete. The plastic surgeons, too, must hate seeing what radiotherapy does to their lovely artwork. It’s no wonder then that “with a view to improving cosmetic outcomes“, clinical trials are under way to determine whether it’s safe to do things the other way round, ie to give radiotherapy before surgery.

As for the other potential long-term side effects, well everyone knows radiation can cause cancer as well as treat it, so the warning about a “minimal risk of second malignancy” was no surprise. But rib fracture? And lung scarring? Well it seems a rare potential late side effect of radiotherapy to the breast is “weakening of the underlying ribs on the treated side“, which may “increase the risk of a fracture in later years”. I’d better be extra careful when I go skiing.

An equally rare or even rarer side effect than rib fracture is lung scarring, aka pulmonary fibrosis, which can result in serious breathing problems (guess there wouldn’t be much skiing at all then). If you’re having radiotherapy to the breast and chest wall, it’s impossible to avoid the lung. The reason I had to hold my breath during treatment was to lift the treatment area away from the lung and so minimise exposure.

Finally, with regard to lymphoedema, well I was already at risk of that anyway as a result of having had the axillary lymph nodes removed during surgery. And yes, I have developed it, in and around the breast area, but I’m hoping it can be resolved, to some extent at least.

So what else do I need to look out for now that I’ve had radiotherapy? Well, swelling caused by treatment can persist for months or even years. Also, irradiated skin may burn more easily from sun exposure and be prone to infection and breakdown, so you need to be extra careful in the sun. And here’s a nice one to finish. Breasts that have been irradiated may not grow or shrink in size as much as untreated breasts, or indeed at all. Radiotherapy seemingly freezes own-tissue reconstructions at the size they were before radiation treatment. Again, this is pretty annoying as one of the benefits of this type of reconstruction over an implant is that the new boob changes with you as you gain or lose weight. One of the main causes of asymmetry between the “treated” and “untreated” breast is, apparently, weight gain. While that’s a clear incentive to keep to a steady weight, it’s not much consolation to those women who put on weight as a result of the hormone treatment they may end up taking for as long as ten years after they’ve had chemo, surgery and radiation (or combination thereof) in an effort to guard against the cancer coming back.

I’m aware I’m not doing a very good job here of “selling” radiotherapy. Radiation treatment reduces the risk of recurrence and that is, of course, the main concern. But it doesn’t half add to the baggage that comes with having or having had breast cancer.

 

“…3, 2, 1 and relax. Congratulations!”

I’d heard the radiographers count down from three then tell me to relax dozens of times during the 15 sessions of radiotherapy that I’d already had.

I’d to hold my breath seven times during each session as the radiation was delivered (A very strange position to be in (Radiotherapy Part 1)).  “3, 2, 1… and relax” was what the radiographers said through the intercom at the end of each hold to let me know I could start breathing normally again.

This time was different. It was Friday 26th February and it was a big day. It was my 16th and final radiotherapy session and it marked the end of the hospital-based phase of my breast cancer treatment. That’s why the radiographer guiding me through that session added “congratulations” after his final instruction to relax. Now for all I know they say that to everyone at the end of their last session. Regardless, I really appreciated the gesture. The moment deserved to be acknowledged. I’d been preparing for, having or recovering from treatment for seven months. Since last July, I’d had chemotherapy, major surgery involving a mastectomy, immediate breast reconstruction and axillary lymph node clearance, and finally, radiotherapy. Less than a month after I’d had surgery, my dad died. His funeral was in Glasgow on 1st February, I came back home to London on the 3rd and started radiotherapy on the 4th.

The day of that final session was an emotional one. I’d been in tears within seconds of waking up, from relief at having got to this point. I’d been expecting to burst into tears the second my last radiotherapy session was over but I was distracted by the radiographers chatting to me about how I felt the sessions had gone, asking about my plans for the rest of the day, getting me to sign the treatment completion form, warning me that the side effects from radiotherapy can continue to happen for another couple of weeks and giving me a leaflet about finishing treatment. My composure didn’t last long, though. I’d to have dressings reapplied to where my skin had reacted badly to the radiotherapy and I started to lose it as I walked from the radiotherapy suite over to the treatment room. Once inside, I sat down on the nearest chair and out it came. The tears only lasted a minute or two and I think I can be forgiven for feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the occasion. The radiography assistant who applied the dressings was very understanding. I guess they’re used to it.

There were more tears throughout the day when the enormity of what I’d gone through would hit me or I’d think of how different the day would have been if my dad had been around to share it.

I’m glad I waited a while to write this. I look back now and recall a lovely day. Cycling back from my appointment in the sunshine later that morning (Bike 8 – Car 7. Victory is mine.), I remember feeling immense gratitude towards everyone involved in my treatment. Just as I got back home I bumped into a neighbour I hadn’t seen for a while and we’d a bit of a chat. I got a massive hug from our cleaning lady. I had lunch with my tennis buddies, tea later in the afternoon with some good friends and lots of people got in touch to say congratulations. Andy, the boys and I finished the day off with our traditional celebratory family meal. You know the one (More good news)… lasagna, garlic bread and salad. This time the champagne was better than usual. We toasted ourselves and we toasted my dad.

In the end it was a day of huge relief and quiet celebration. It’s a day I won’t easily forget.

 

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?