A Peek Into Patty's Cancer Journey
It’s October 2014, three days before my 48th birthday. My annual mammogram was in just 2 hours. I realized I hadn’t done the breast self-exams monthly, like we’re told to do. I didn’t have any breast cancer in my family, so I always thought it could never happen to me. I guess I never felt worried and just never remembered to do it. That day I vowed to start checking myself.
“The call” that changed my life was after that mammogram and the flood of emotions and thoughts that followed can only be explained as a whirlwind in my mind. As a type-A, eldest child who always gets things done, my brain went into hyper-drive, quickly grabbing the bill at the restaurant to take notes as the nurse spoke on the phone. I already didn’t like the “I’m so sorry” look on my friend’s face as she could hear my responses on the phone. I left quickly, trying to reach my husband as I drove home in a fog. Once home, I quickly started scheduling consults and thinking of who I could call that had breast cancer, just to talk with them.
I was given a heavy dilemma and my brain instantly treated it as a seek and destroy mission. But some may not react this way when they get their call. Maybe they’re alone when they get the news. Maybe they put down the phone and just feel numb. Maybe they burst into tears. They think of their family and what they will say when they see their spouse, partner, child, or parent. My father lost my mother to pancreatic cancer only a few years before, and when I told him about my breast cancer, his gasp was audible.
Cancer changes everything. It stops life for a moment when you get “the call”. But we are not powerless. We are strong and we can do so much to beat this and take away much worry and anxiety. The journey is long, but there are many actions we can take to help our body heal and lift our spirits. Besides yoga, prayer, mediation, deep breathing, outdoor walks and exercise, there are other ways to learn to care for ourselves and help in our own recovery.
When it comes to your recovery, think about 3 things:
- Comfort – Our body needs to recover and that takes time. Be kind to yourself and don’t rush. Your body’s ability to heal is miraculous. Learn what you need to do for your scar and your range of motion after a lumpectomy. Learn what your body needs after radiation and how to treat the skin that might be darkening. Your doctor will likely send you to a physical therapist with special training in post-mastectomy patients. Learn from him or her. They will probably massage your scar and should teach you how to continue this yourself. Hopefully they’ll address any swelling and perform Lymphatic Drainage Massage. They’ll probably recommend that you do this daily. Your range of motion will likely be affected, but know with targeted self-massage and time, you’ll be feeling better soon. Address your emotional needs if you’ve neglected them during your surgery by journaling, deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and finding supportive people in your life.
- Mobility – Self Myofascial Release (SMR) is how I improved my mobility and reduced inflammation by increasing circulation. My skin and fascia felt stretched, hydrated, and massaged, thereby increasing the mobility of my muscles, joints and connective tissue. RAD Roller makes tools just for this purpose. There are many to choose from so try different ones to see which works best for you. I like one of their softest tools called the Recovery Rounds. Perfect name as it helped me recover from my injuries and surgeries. Check out the video I made with Roy from RAD and try using these self-care tools to help increase your comfort and mobility after surgery.
- Mental Health – Cancer doesn’t have to define you. It was something that happened and now you can move on. You got through a very hard time but now it’s time to be thankful and kind to yourself. Worry about the future may creep in but breathe and know you are safe. Examine your health in every way - your nutrition, your relationships, your mental and spiritual health - seek ways to be happier and healthier. It’s in our power to treat ourselves with the utmost respect and love, going forward in peace and confidence.
9 Surprising Cancer Truths
Surprising Truth #1 – You can get breast cancer even if there isn’t a single person in your family that has had it – going back as many generations as you can. That was me.
Surprising Truth #2 – Don’t panic about insurance or money right away. The WHCRA (Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act from 1998) can protect you. You could qualify to have all appointments and surgeries from here on out covered by law, so do your research. Finding your breast surgeon might take some time and effort but do it quickly and efficiently. You don’t want this to linger and create more worry and anxiety. Ask anyone you know that has been through breast cancer and if they would recommend their doctor.
Surprising truth #3 - Understand your nurse navigator’s role. She will call you and help direct you, give you doctor’s names in her network and make sure you fully understand your next steps. She’s not necessarily there to talk through your feelings, although some may offer this. Figure out who your support team is going to be and stick with those trusted people in your life.
Surprising Truth #4 – It’s your choice! It is up to you as to what procedure you feel is best for you. Read up and learn about the 4 stages, HER2-positive, or whatever else they tell you about your test results and your type of cancer. Then learn about all surgery options by reading, talking to others who have been through this, and consulting with breast surgeons and plastic surgeons. Doctors will usually not suggest the most radical procedure (mastectomy) if it can be avoided.
Surprising Truth #5 – Doctors may not be able to “get it all.” When a doctor tells you that they can remove the lump and even take extra tissue around the tumor to increase the “margins” and that will make you cancer free…well, that’s not always the case. During my lumpectomy surgery, my doctor looked at the removed tissue in the lab while I was still under anesthesia and decided to go back and remove more tissue. She felt confident that my margins were clear then. But she couldn’t know this for sure - I learned that later.
Surprising Truth #6 – Follow your instincts, follow your gut. Even if others discourage you in the direction you are going, follow your gut. I had a lumpectomy and for 3 months afterwards I felt so strongly that they didn’t get it all and that I needed a mastectomy. Everyone told me it was overkill, but I’m pretty spiritual, and I believed the feeling in my gut was there for a reason and I listened to it. When the pathology report came back after my mastectomy it showed that my margins from the original lumpectomy were not completely clear and that there was another cancer in the same breast, but in a different spot. This new small tumor was not visible on the MRI taken before the lumpectomy. Had I listened to everyone and not followed my gut, I would have dealt with a new, possibly more aggressive cancer only months later.
Surprising Truth #7 – You may not want to talk about it. That may be surprising to your friends. They may not understand that you just don’t want to repeat the same story over and over. You also may be tired of everyone telling you their stories about someone they knew or heard about that had breast cancer and what they did. Maybe you just don’t want to dwell on what’s happened and let it define you. Maybe you’re actively engaged and okay with the hard work ahead of you, but don’t want to have to give updates to a lot of people. Your friends and family want to help and show they care, but you need to be clear about what you need from them. If it’s not constant phone calls and texts, and you’d rather just have meals delivered during your recovery, just tell them. Sometimes creating time and space away from everyone is okay, giving you the ability to go within yourself to find that strength and peace, while not completely alienating yourself from those that care.
Surprising Truth #8 – There may be more reconstructive surgeries than you realize. What if something goes wrong? What if there’s an infection? What if the look you thought you were going to have after you healed just isn’t what you thought? What if radiation has caused your skin to be brown and thick and your doctor tells you they can’t use that skin now for any future reconstructive surgeries? What if your implant has turned? I had no idea how many things could happen to cause multiple surgeries. The one and done girls - I salute you! But many of us have a long road ahead.
Surprising Truth #9 – You may not want to wear pink! Don’t even show me a pink ribbon! Yes, that was me. It was a designation, a label, a marketing tool to me versus the badge of honor many others feel it is. Some may love it and some may hate it, so I’d wait to buy that water bottle, pin, or blanket with a big ‘ol pink ribbon on it until you know which way someone feels!
A Note From Patty
You may feel lost and feel like things are out of control during this process. You may receive great care from doctors, friends and loved ones, but yearn to connect with someone who has walked in your shoes and who has experienced the same emotions, challenges and decisions. Find that person. And until you do, connect with me if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.
Sending light and love to you,
Connect with me on Instagram @yogaunitea