Tag Archive | swelling

Weekly Photo Challenge: An Eerie Feeling — Is it Cancer?

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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.

5 days post mastectomy and axillary lymph node dissection for stage 3c breast cancer

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.”

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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…

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Even more eerie than fake blood is real blood… These are my mastectomy drains.

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Kevin looks for ghosts amid the cobwebs this Halloween

As always, thank you for being here.  And if you would like to participate in The Daily Post‘s Weekly Photo Challenge, just click on this link.

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Mistaken for the Bride of Frankenstein — Part II

[May 6, 2013]

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So I had the Mohs Microsurgery / Chemosurgery last Tuesday morning.  I was grateful for all of the kind comments on Mistaken for the Bride of Frankenstein and Skin Cancer, Too?  Really?!  You really gave me the courage to face another surgery and another type of cancer.  Of course this surgery was nothing compared to the others and this cancer was just a bump in the road, but I think I would have continued to push this surgery out even further if it weren’t for all of you.

I have been meaning to post about what the experience was like, but it was such a difficult week that I just couldn’t manage it.  And then I thought the Frank and Nancy post was much more important. I will begin with what has happened to my face since the surgery.  Quite simply, my face has swollen beyond recognition.  I wish I were exaggerating.  On a positive note, they say it will get better — but that it will take a week or two to do so.  I’ll take it — I’m just glad this won’t be permanent!  And so are the kids, who looked horrified when they saw me this morning and told me that it was getting worse! Back to the procedure.

As you know, I was quite nervous about this one!  Fortunately, my lovely friend jme was here and she not only made me feel better about going, but she got the boys ready for school so we could leave at 7:40 a.m. for the hospital.

H (husband) dropped me off in the hospital loop and I made my way up to the Mohs Surgery Department.  I haven’t mentioned it before (this is another post I haven’t gotten to!), but we have had a photojournalism student (Jennifer) following us around for the past couple of months to document our lives as a family dealing with the effects of cancer.  Jennifer met me just outside the doors and began taking photos as I walked to the check-in desk and made my way to the waiting area. H met us in the waiting area about 10 minutes later.  He promptly found a magazine and took a seat.  When they came to collect me to prep me for the surgery and asked if I would like to bring someone back with me for this part since I had skipped out of the pre-op / question-answering appointment, H didn’t look up from his magazine.  Apparently, reading about the life and times of Billie Joe (Green Day’s frontman) was more riveting than what was about to happen to my face and asking questions about the cancer growing on my forehead.  Normally this wouldn’t bother me.  But this morning it did because I was so unenthusiastic about the surgery that I think I was visibly shaken.  So when Jennifer asked if she could follow me back, I did not object.

We were taken to a large, bright room with a special chair — it looked like one of the birthing chairs from Star Trek: The Next Generation — positioned in its center.  Jennifer asked the nurse if she would be allowed to take photographs, so the nurse left to see if the surgeon would allow this.  When she came back with an “okay” for photographing everything but the surgery, the prep began.

A second nurse arrived, and after asking me some questions and cleaning my forehead, they began injecting my forehead to anesthetize the area. After massaging the anesthetic in, waiting, and testing the area to see if it was truly numb, the nurses left to get the surgeon.

When Dr. B arrived, he discussed the procedure, used a black marker to outline the area he’d be cutting, and described what my scar would look like. Then he asked if I had any questions.  At jme’s urging, I asked if he could make my scar look like Harry Potter’s.  He smiled, said yes, and walked out, promising to return when my prep was finished. After he left, the nurses draped my head with sterile cloths, rechecked the numbness of the area, and asked Jennifer to leave.

When Dr. B returned, he looked at my online chart and said that he thought it was safe to say that I had been through a lot.  So he then assured me that he would do his best to get as much as he could in the first round so he wouldn’t have to put me through anything more than necessary.  I thanked him and then tried to go to my happy place as I felt the cold instruments touch my head. I’m not sure how much time passed before he said that he needed the cautery.  I asked if I had forgotten to mention that I was on blood thinners.  Yes, I had.  I could smell burning flesh.

Then he continued, and cauterized more because I continued to bleed. And eventually he was done.  He cauterized some more, and then they put a pressure bandage on my head, and escorted me to the waiting area so we could see if he had taken enough to get clean margins.

While I waited, my surgeon, who is uniquely qualified to double as a pathologist, looked at slides of the tissue he had taken to determine whether he was able to get clean margins. As I waited, before and after my surgery, I watched as a nurse came to the waiting area to tell several other patients their results.  My surgeon had managed to get clean margins for each of them.

As I read an issue of Coastal Living, I couldn’t help but notice that I was the youngest patient in the packed waiting room.  By far.  I think I could safely say that most of the people there were double my age.  This fact wasn’t lost on Dr. B, either.  He told me that it is not uncommon for people to develop skin cancer.  It’s just fairly unusual to develop it at my age.

Now it was my turn to get my results.  I was told that he had also gotten clean margins for me.

The nurses brought me back to the surgical room.  They asked Jennifer not to follow. They whipped out the needles to numb me again.  When this was done, Dr. B came back in, reiterated that he had managed to get clean margins around the cancer.  Then they draped me with blue sterile cloths again.  And Dr. B undid my pressure bandage and began cauterizing me again.  Then he started to stitch me up.

When he was through, he apologized for everything I was going through and wished me well.  He told me that I had a much higher risk of developing future skin cancers and asked me to schedule a full skin check in 6 months.  He said that I would always need to do this now and that I would need to be more vigilant about checking myself and being protected in the sun.  I neglected to tell him that being more vigilant would require staying indoors entirely, even in our grey city.

After he walked out, one of the nurses asked if I’d like to see it.  Of course I did!

She handed me the mirror and “That’s big!” was the first thing I said.  Dr. B could have made a nice Harry Potter scar and it would have been the same length!  The nurses reassured me that it wouldn’t be that noticeable one day and they wrapped me up with a pressure bandage and went over the care instructions.

It wasn’t long before I was finished and had an appointment scheduled to remove my stitches in a week (tomorrow).  I was there about 5 hours, but it didn’t feel like it.  It really wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated.  And I am glad that I did it.

Or at least I was until the swelling began.  It began to appear on Day 3.  By that evening I was so swollen that even H thought I should call the surgeon’s office after hours.  When I did, they gave me a few instructions and scheduled me to come back to the hospital in the morning.

At the hospital I was told that the swelling was a result of an excessive amount of bleeding.  My surgeon said this was pretty unusual.  He seemed to feel that my “young” age and skin were partially to blame.  He said that it would get worse before it would get better and that it would soon look bruised (and give me a set of black eyes).  Lovely!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Renewal — Confessions of a Former Mermaid

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One of my most favorite places in the world
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The Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge subject for this week is renewal.  The word can mean different things to different people.  But for me, one word comes to mind — SEA.

Perhaps I was a mermaid or a sea turtle in another life?  Or perhaps my love of the water is a genetic trait passed down for generations by my English and Scottish ancestors, much like my blue eyes and my dimples?

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Regardless of how difficult life can be and how sick I have felt at different points along this rocky road since the cancer diagnosis, there is always one place where I feel safe and healthy and whole again.  There is one place where I feel renewed.  And that is in the ocean.

Pools are lovely.  And the lake is okay.  But the sense of relief I feel when I walk into the ocean or into Florida’s warm gulf waters just doesn’t compare.  It is as if I am home again.  Let me swim in lovely warm sea water and I feel refreshed and renewed and ready to face the world again.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many opportunities to visit the water and I live in a region that is cold half of the year.  And the bathtub just doesn’t cut it!  So I live for our trips to the sea and hold fast to all of the memories I’ve made in the water… And I dream of the next time I will be able to immerse myself in Florida’s warm blue oasis.

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breast cancer bilateral mastectomy hawaii seaIt was almost 2 years ago when I was shifting treatments from Taxol (chemotherapy) to radiation.  I had a 10-day break in between, so we cashed in our credit card miles and flew to Hawaii.  I was terribly sick from 9 months of treatment.  I had a shiny bald head and was swollen from the steroids and kidney trouble.  And it hadn’t been that long since my mastectomy.  I was a disaster.  But the trip was a dream come true.  How fortunate I felt to be able to dip my toes into Hawaii’s alluring waters.  It was a little too chilly for swimming for my fragile body for most of the trip, but just having the opportunity to absorb so much beauty was incredibly uplifting and replenishing for my mind and soul.  Here are some of the photos from that unforgettable vacation.

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Thanks for reading!

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breast cancer thirties bilateral mastectomy hawaii plane ocean

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Sea Turtle

To participate in the Weekly Photo Challenge:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/weekly-photo-challenge-renewal/

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