When I saw the Weekly Photo Challenge for this week — Eerie — my first thoughts weren’t of Halloween costumes or fake blood or ghouls or goblins. No, my first thoughts were of the sore spot and the “thickening” in my chest in an area that cancer once called home.
Since my bilateral mastectomy three years ago, I have been checking the area often enough. Monthly, I suppose? Maybe less? It’s often enough that I would notice a change.
While I rarely have trouble with my right side since the surgery, my left side has been a different story. Because of the depth/extent of my left mastectomy and the resulting nerve damage, I have been plagued with a range of unpleasant feelings, from numbness, tingling, itchiness and dull pain, to searing pain and what they term “phantom pain.”
You may have heard of phantom pain before. Maybe you’ve known someone who has had a limb amputated. Or you’ve watched an interview with a war veteran who lost an arm or a leg. Or you follow Grey’s Anatomy and saw the episodes when Arizona was struggling after losing her leg in the plane crash. Or maybe you’ve never heard of it and just think it sounds kind of eerie.
Well, it is kind of eerie. And not just because of its name.
“Sometimes after a body part has been amputated, it feels as if that part is still there. This is called phantom sensation. It…is not pain, but is a “tingly,” cramping, or itching feeling where the missing part used to be.
[Phantom pain, on the other hand, is painful.] The pain feels as if it is in the part that is missing. Phantom pain…may feel like a burning, crushing, or stabbing sensation.” [UPMC.com]
This is a roundabout way of explaining to you that despite the wide range of sensations I’ve experienced on the left side, none of these feelings have ever prompted me to pick up the phone and call the doctor because I’ve always accepted them as my new normal.
But what I’ve been experiencing recently does not feel like the pain or other sensations I’ve become accustomed to in the past three years. It feels different. It feels like the pain I felt before my surgery. Like the pain I was experiencing in my breast when my cancer diagnosis came 3 1/2 years ago.
Now maybe you are thinking that doesn’t really mean anything. I don’t even have that (or any) breast anymore. I was thinking this, too. But then I reached under my shirt and felt the area. In fact, I’ve repeatedly “checked” the area over the past week.
And it feels different. Like a thickened “something.”
At first I thought maybe it was swelling. Swelling has been an issue for me since I received my first intervention — months of dose dense chemo meant to make my inoperable cancer operable. When I was finally ready for surgery, it was a different kind of swelling. Swelling in my arms from lymphedema. And despite having surgical drains placed to collect excess fluid/blood that can accumulated following the surgery, in the space where the tumor was, there was a significant amount of swelling in my chest/underarm/shoulder area. While surgical drains are very common with this type of surgery, leaving them in for many weeks is not typical. But there was so much fluid that it was necessary. Even still, I developed large seromas [a seroma is a collection of serous fluid in the dead space of post-mastectomy skin flap, axilla or breast] that necessitated trips to the surgeon’s office every 2-3 days so he could insert a long, wide needle and manually drain the fluid.
But it’s been a while since I’ve had a seroma or swelling in this particular area of my chest. And it does not feel like swelling. In fact, it doesn’t feel anything like what I’ve become accustomed to.
Normally when I touch the area where my left breast used to be, since the tissue and muscle are missing, I feel rib bones (or the spaces between them) through a thin layer of skin.
It’s odd, really, to go from feeling the squishy, rounded softness of your breasts, to feeling the hard, unforgiving rigidity of bone.
It’s a difficult adjustment to make.
And though you may con your brain into accepting the new “normal” day in and day out, your fingers never really forget. Touching the area where your breast used to be is still just as jarring for your fingertips as it was in the beginning.
So when something is different…less chiseled…more flexible…softer, your fingers notice.
So it is easy to recognize when something is different or awry.
Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it will be fine. It’s probably nothing. It will probably be fine. I haven’t even mentioned it to anyone in my life other than “you” because I’m almost sure it will be okay.
But the eerie feeling I had this past week each time my fingers were drawn to my chest was enough of an incentive enough for me to call the office of the breast specialist who diagnosed my cancer. And it was enough to make me accept (and not cancel) an appointment for 7:30 this morning so I can find out for sure.
I will leave you with my “eerie” photos…