Survivor since 1993…
Almost 16 years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 40, married with a four year old son and busy pursuing a career as a classical musician. I did not have any breast cancer in my family and although I’d had a benign tumor in my other breast some years before, it was a total surprise and shock to receive the diagnosis. I had just spent a year rehabbing my knee from a skiing accident so this was a double whammy.
Fortunately, my best friend’s husband was a pathologist and was very well-connected with the medical community in Nashville where we lived at the time. Together with my husband and supportive family and friends, they helped me navigate the sometimes stormy waters of treatment – and I was lucky; I found the tumor at a very early stage and was able to have a lumpectomy and radiation. I dodged the chemo bullet that we all fear.
Not so fortunately, I developed lymphedema two years later as a large number of women do. It is basically a buildup of lymphatic fluid that causes chronic swelling in the arm and sometimes the hand as well. A good basic source of information for lymphedema is the Mayo Clinic website: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lymphedema
The type of lymphedema that breast cancer survivors develop is called secondary, because it occurs when there has been trauma to the lymphatic system (ie surgery and the removal of lymph nodes, as was the standard procedure when I had my surgery). I wear a compression sleeve when I exercise or do housework, but for me, the best therapy has been manual lymphatic drainage massage – a specific type of massage that doesn’t go too deeply into the tissue, but gently moves the fluid up out of the arm towards the armpit and collarbone, where it drains out of the lymph nodes under the collarbone. I have been receiving (basically) weekly massages from Lisa Kistner here in Aspen for the last 10 years. She has studied the technique and has a number of regular clients here. Manual lymphatic drainage can also be used on non lymphedema patients for a variety of swelling problems and post-surgical patients. But even the lymphedema has had a silver lining – I’ve developed great friendships with the people that have helped me deal with the hassles of it. This [Roaring Fork] valley is blessed with several massage therapists that really make a difference.
My diagnosis and treatment was the beginning of a multi-year battle for my family. The next year, my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer and then that same year, one year to the day after I was diagnosed, my sister called to say that she too had developed breast cancer – same side and everything. As difficult as that was, she told me that she knew she would be ok because her big sister had made it through.
Although I wish I had never had cancer, I feel that perhaps being the first in my family to go through it had a purpose after all. Although my dad finally passed away last summer from a different cancer, we were able to talk about it together as only people who’ve shared a common experience can. My sister and I are still healthy and our mutual experience with this disease has deepened and enriched our lives. Every year when I do the Race for the Cure, I do it to celebrate her and she does the same for me.