By Maureen Moyer
I am from a long line of breast cancer survivors, so when I was diagnosed in 2008 with breast cancer, I was not in the least surprised. I was just 50, my twin sister and I celebrated that milestone in February 2007. By December of that year, I knew something was wrong. I had a mammogram at Sunnybrook that fall, in October I believe, and received “all clear”. Both the mammogram and the vigorous breast examination at Sunnybrook failed to detect an exceedingly small tumour situated close to my left armpit and sitting deep on a ligament. It was undetectable at that time. Later that fall, I noticed a puckering in my breast when I was drying my lower body, just out of a shower at my gym. I knew instantly what it was, so I booked an appointment with my doctor at the high-risk breast screening centre at the Odette Centre.
What followed was an ultrasound and a core biopsy in January, and a lumpectomy in February. At that time, we did not know if it had spread to my lymph nodes but during the surgery I was biopsied and it turned out that the cancer had spread to four of my eighteen nodes, and my surgeon removed all of them. My surgeon came to see me and I thanked her for being so thorough. Now that was twelve years ago, I am not sure whether this would be the case now where all nodes would be removed, however, it was the surgical option my doctor and her team recommended at the time.
The surgery was followed with six chemo treatments, six weeks apart, then 25 doses of radiation. During my treatment I acquired several washable wigs and proceeded to get into even more excellent physical shape than I had been. I was filmed by a television crew detailing my workout plan and my overall positivity and frankly I handled the whole thing extremely well. I had the support of my wonderful family and friends, as well as Sunnybrook Hospital and my amazing cancer team. I also became involved with Wellspring and took courses and became a volunteer at Westerkirk House. I then had beautiful reconstructive surgery six years after my lumpectomy, again with a wonderful team at Sunnybrook. I could not have been more blessed.
Although I knew lymphedema was a possible side effect of my cancer treatment, I did not get any signs of it for many years afterwards. It first appeared while I was trekking in Spain and my left arm was bitten by some insect in a few places and of course it swelled badly. With the rubbing of the knapsack under the arms and the constant pole walking, my arm became a problem and I had to seek medical help in the middle of rural Spain and speaking through Google translator. I was given pills and a shot – to this day I am not even sure what they were – but I wore a shirt with tight arms and sent my knapsack ahead to alleviate the weight of it while walking. Coincidentally, I met a “pilgrim” from Germany who treated lymphedema patients professionally and she was of enormous help. By the time I finished the Trail after 778 kms of walking, the arm was under control.
Once I returned to Toronto, my doctor referred me to the lymphedema clinic at Sunnybrook. I was outfitted with a sleeve and gauntlet as I was off on another volunteer trip to Ethiopia and Uganda and it was highly recommended that I wear both on the plane and of course keep it on during my travels. I was also told to cover them up in the sun and keep them clean and insect-bite free – that sort of advice.
My arm settled down once again, and I was lymphedema free until about two years ago. It flared up again but this time it has stayed with me. I have had several lymphedema drainage massage treatments, I have learned how to manually look after myself, which I admit is hard to do daily and with regularity, I dry brush when I watch television, I hold my arm up and shake it a lot. I do everything with my left arm as I would with my right. I swim, I hike, I do yoga and recently, cross-country ski and snowshoe – especially now as I am up north in Collingwood temporarily staying with my daughter and her family. I follow a healthy lifestyle and despite loving my food and treats, I keep my weight under control. My fear is that it will get worse as I get older, and I am on a fixed income, going into my 64th year, and the cost of treatment is awfully expensive for me. The Sunnybrook Lymphedema clinic recommended that I apply for the Compassion Fund provided by the Lymphedema Association of Ontario so that I could get the treatment I need.
I am extremely grateful to say that I have been accepted into the program; it will make a big difference to me as treatment has to come before garments to be effective!
For all of us who have this condition and will likely suffer from it for the rest of our lives, I strongly feel that our government should step up to the plate and help ease the financial burden of this chronic condition which none of us deserve. Until then, I am sending positive and hopeful thoughts and would like to thank you for reading my first “blog” ever!