So I’m taking a small liberty here, no one asked about cording, but it feels like it’s worth mentioning along with my comments on lymphedema. To determine the spread of breast cancer, breast surgeons remove one or more lymph nodes. They act as filters, so they are likely the first place cancer cells would be trapped if they’d escaped the breast. Unfortunately, taking them out to check for cancer, while important, can cause not so great side effects. Lymphedema– the swelling of fingers and arms in breast cancer– occurs when the remaining lymph nodes can’t keep up and fluid builds up. That’s why some women wear a compression sleeve after a mastectomy. Because some of the lymph nodes are removed, the lymphatic vessels that service those nodes can harden from disuse and cause problems as well. (They look like tendons that appeared out of nowhere, frequently under the arm and down the arm to the wrist, but can also run from under the arm and down through the chest.)
Before I had my mastectomy, I had an hour or so consult with a physical therapist. (As an aside, I would insist on having this kind of appointment a week or so before surgery– invaluable.) Michelle is a lymphedema specialist, and she made sure I understand exactly what I should and should not do after surgery. More than that, she made sure I knew what to expect and what would signal a problem with lymphedema. She emphasized that it would be far easier to deal with lymphedema early, before it became a significant issue. Though I have yet to meet her, I also have several friends who see a massage therapist at the Teal Center at the hospital who focuses her massage on the axilla (that’s a fancy word for armpit– I’m flashing back to Fancy Nancy!) to help encourage lymph drainage.
Thankfully, I only had a few small, superficial nodes removed at surgery, so I am not likely to struggle with lymphedema. I did experience some minor cording, and Michelle used massage and stretching to break the cord, which you could hear pop as she broke them down. Creepy. On the advice of a friend, I scheduled my appointments with her just before I went for an expansion with the plastic surgeon, and I think the relaxing of that area really helped lessen the pain of the expansion.
Lymphedema and cording are real issues, though as current standard practice does not dictate that a surgeon remove all nodes, they are not as prevalent now as they once were. Still, the take home message is that there are physical therapists who are specifically trained to combat these problems. Michelle did a great job, and she was really nice, too. A little PT would be so much better than dealing with swelling and the pain from cording.