October is breast cancer awareness month which now has even more significance to me having gone through a recent double mastectomy. It is also Physical Therapy month which of course is also near and dear to my heart! I’ve decided what better way to be of some benefit than to combine these two to offer education and support for those affected by breast cancer through my unique experience of being a Physical Therapist on the journey of navigating a breast cancer diagnosis myself. I feel lucky that my path was easier than many women since I was able to avoid radiation and chemotherapy with my decision, yet I hope to be able to still offer some insight, support, and education from both a personal and professional perspective. I do have to say, this is not medical advice, it is my personal perspective and insights from a journey I never imagined myself being on.
A lot of topics and ideas have come up and I will briefly touch on some of those here and dive a little deeper into each in the future, but let’s begin by getting the conversation started with one of the most important pieces…
Awareness and early detection are key! My breasts were always dense, with multiple lumps and cysts so it was beyond frustrating (not to mention uncomfortable and often painful) to do a self-exam, therefore, I pretty much ignored doing them. I am not advising this!! Prior to this diagnosis, I had 15 years of scares and multiple surgical biopsies, cysts drained, mammograms, ultrasounds, and thermography, so I did my best but it often brought anxiety and stress to think about. Thankfully when something did start to feel different this May, and a bit off in my right breast I did not ignore it. I had a cyst about the size of a ping pong ball which was not unusual for me, they often came and went, but this time there was a pulling and tightness when I raised my arm that was different. With much reluctance, I made an appointment with my new PCP and requested a mammogram. Having dense breasts with multiple cysts, mammograms were always extremely painful and downright torturous for me. They always led to an ultrasound follow up because the tissue was too dense to get a good picture. Not unusual but what was different this time was what every woman dreads during this appointment - being called back to speak to the radiologist about something suspicious they found. I was still in denial at this point. I had many scares before but something felt different this time. I kept trying to deny my intuition and breathe through my anxiety. When the technician did another ultrasound to get a clearer picture she tried to stay neutral but I could tell from her response she did not like what she was seeing. I could also tell the radiologist was trying to be positive and was quite kind, but was concerned enough that he was recommending a stereotactic biopsy. (a topic for a whole other discussion!) My hope in sharing this part of my story is to encourage you that no matter what your past experience and ideas around self-exams and testing, please pay attention to your body and your intuition and find the right diagnostic route for you. You are worth it! Maybe it means having a loved one to confide in or go with you to appointments, but please don’t ignore anything that does not feel right to you.
Here are some of the topics I plan to dive into in the future:
~Biopsies and further testing.
~Advocacy and Choices. Many women are not given the option of no reconstruction or “going flat” when they are considering a mastectomy. It is a personal choice and only you know what is right for you, yet my goal is to educate women of all options and possible complications of each.
~Breast implant illness (BII) and breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL). There are numerous women coming forward with similar symptoms and research is starting to point to the reality that BII is a real thing. Many women also have no issues at all with their implants and are very happy with them. I support women in whatever they choose, I just want them to have as much information as possible before making a decision.
~Complications, at least some I had the opportunity to get more familiar with: blood clots - urinary retention - cording or axillary web syndrome - lymphedema.
~DCIS - is it cancer? Here is an article that hit home for me on the topic. Even though I worked in the medical field for years, I didn’t know that not only within breast cancer but even within DCIS there are so many different variations and factors.
~Some suggestions on how to support someone you love going through a similar challenge and what not to say.
~Navigating and combining both conventional and holistic medicine as paths for treatment
~Mindfulness as a tool for healing and coping.
~Learning to slow down - self-care - saying no more often…AND also saying yes to the right things! It is not just about saying no.
~Caregivers need care too.
~Men can get breast cancer too.
It is healing for me to write about my experience and I hope in some way helps others. My goal is empowerment and education as well as being a support for others finding themselves suddenly on a path they had only previously imagined someone else on. Please know I am available to anyone who might need some support or insight from someone who has some personal experience with some of these challenges.
In good health and with much gratitude,