Today, I was diagnosed with lymphedema, which is a chronic swelling of the limbs. It can come and go, flaring up when you put too much pressure on the arm that is on the side where you, as a breast cancer survivor, had a mastectomy. In my case and in those of many other survivors, it is due to the pooling of lymphatic fluid as the result having lymph nodes under the armpit removed during a mastectomy. My diagnosis has me a little down, realizing a lasting side effect of cancer treatment.
Don't get me wrong — I am so happy and grateful to be a survivor and my outlook on life is so much better than it was pre-cancer. And, there are much worse side effects, like heart problems or the like. But, I thought I had made it through my surgeries and recovery without developing lymphedema. I was wrong.
This past Saturday, in an attempt to get back to doing the things I enjoyed pre-cancer, I enrolled in yoga with my favorite instructor. Her 1 1-/2-hour sessions are intense, active and they make you sweat. It's not gentle yoga by any stretch of the imagination. I noticed in between the multiple downward facing dogs and planks that my left hand was a little swollen. I knew something was up, but I pushed through the class.
Realizing my limitations
I also realized throughout class that the upper left side of my body is not as strong as the right side is; that's because I had another surgery (breast reconstruction) not quite three months ago and had not yet rebuilt the strength in my arms and back. I knew it was time for more physical therapy, because I had lost much of the strength I had regained after my first surgery —my mastectomy.
I had also had a shooting pain in the lower portion of my left arm for the past week or so; the pain extended into my hand and was mostly apparent in the mornings. I assumed this could have been the result of cording, which is a strange phenomenon where this line of tissue is apparent just under the surface of your skin. Experts say it could be scar tissue left behind from surgery. I had cording in my arm after my mastectomy and it resolved itself after physical therapists kneaded it during physical therapy.
Nervous about what could be happening with my arm — some women report a lot of swelling and say it really bothers them — I went back to the lymphedema specialist this morning. I was scared about it getting worse, and of hurting myself further by working out. I knew that I was at high risk for developing lymphedema because not only did I have surgery to remove my lymph nodes due to the cancer cells that were initially in them, but because I also had radiation. Radiation increases the risk of lymphedema. And, not taking it easy while working out can bring on lymphedema. That appears to be what happened to me during yoga.
A new fashion trend?
My doctor was not happy with the fact I had lymphedema. He immediately told me I pushed it too hard. That's the story of my life. I often want my body to do more and do it quicker and faster than it can sometimes. Hence my history of sports injuries, such as tendonitis in my foot and a pulled hamstring. In my defense, I took it really slow rebuilding my upper body strength after my mastectomy; I just apparently didn't after this last surgery.
So, now it's back to physical therapy, which honestly makes me happy because I realize I need the support to once again rebuild my upper body strength. The ironic thing is my doctor has no qualms about me continuing to run four times per week, which to me is more challenging than yoga or strength training. Yes, those affect different parts of my body, but I also need the upper back strength while I run, as it helps support the spine and minimizes any lower back pain that could come from the repetitive motion of running on hard concrete.
I will get back my muscle strength one day at a time. And, my goal through physical therapy is to do it carefully to minimize any swelling from lymphedema. The good thing is there are some more stylish compression sleeves on the market now, so maybe myself and other breast cancer survivors will just need to start a fashion trend.