Breast cancer lesson number 38: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again

Today was supposed to be a simple day. First, head to assisted conception to try and schedule my egg collection at a time that meant I could keep my oncology appointment on Monday too. Then, head to the breast clinic for the second of my arm measurements in the Lymphoedema clinical trial. In short, have a chat and stretch your arm out straight. Now, how hard could that be?

As it turns out, pretty hard. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems. Take assisted conception. It seems the Monday egg collection list that ‘isn’t planned until tomorrow when they know how many people are on it,’ is already pretty much full for the morning. I can only assume that has something to do with the volume of private patients on the collection list. Currently, I don’t appear on any list, but am just hoping my request to schedule it around my noon oncology and blood test appointment is taken on board, otherwise oncology might not be too pleased. Two blood tests, one suppository, one IV sedation, one egg collection and more discussions about toxic drugs await me on Monday. I’m already excited!

Determined to achieve something today, I set off to the breast clinic, practising my arm exercises on the way. As anyone who has read lesson 11 will know, I have dedicated my arm to science in order to help those trying to detect Lymphoedema as early as possible. The challenge for today? Can I get my right arm out as straight as I did a month ago? The answer? No chance. I tried (twice) and failed (twice). We even made a little graph out of the data to show me just how far off I was. My homework? More exercises until my arm is poker straight. They have two weeks to get the reading. I have two weeks to walk my arm up a wall and get it just that little bit straighter – and higher – than it is at the moment. At least I got my height measured so it wasn’t such a wasted trip for measurement man (not something I could fail at so easily)!

For those of you thinking: ‘but I thought she had breast and tummy surgery, so why is her arm hurting?,’ don’t worry, you haven’t missed a chapter. My restricted arm movement is as a result of having my lymph nodes removed (thankfully I did, given the cancer in one of the infected nodes had already spread out into the surrounding tissue). The surgery has given me a partially-numb, quite swollen and very sore right arm. It feels like someone has tightened everything inside my arm and it needs a while to loosen up. Think alien limb (whose only friend is numb new boob), and you’re not far off. With alien arm, I can write (for short periods), I can knit (for shorter periods), I can cook (as long as I don’t lift heavy pans), I can play quoits (albeit very badly) and I can lift tea (at any time), I just can’t carry supermarket shopping or, it seems, pass clinical trial tests.

Apart from a sore arm, the one thing no ANC (which means anxillary node clearance for anyone counting abbreviations after Saturday’s lesson) patient wants is Lymphoedema – or swelling. Without the lymph nodes to drain fluid from the arm, lymphatic fluid can build up in the surrounding tissues. It can be controlled, but, once it has developed (and it can develop any time in the future), it is unlikely to ever go away.

A compression sleeve is not something I’d like to wear with a wedding dress, so I am currently surrounding myself with as many tips and hints as possible to avoid getting injured or infected on that side. No one really knows what causes Lymphoedema (hence why I am on a trial), but this never-again-on-right-arm list should help reduce the risks:

The banned list

1)   Soap that dries out the skin (unperfumed moisturiser is a must for the kit bag). I think I can handle that.
2)   Very hot (or very cold water). They mention steam rooms and saunas, but am hoping occasional use is ok.
3)   Acupuncture on ‘at-risk’ arm (plenty more places to prick thankfully)
4)   Injections (woohoo!)
5)   Blood pressure cuffs (another woohoo! Quite liked it on my leg in hospital)
6)   Blood tests (don’t I know it!)
7)   Lots of weight gain (I will try, but who knows what chemo will do to me)
8)   Walking around with robot arm (being my right arm, am desperate to use it normally, so am not auditioning for a role in Star Wars)
9)   Deep tissue massage unless practitioner is specifically trained (they really know how to take away all my fun)
10) Sunburn (I have never actively tried to get burnt, but my skin just likes turning red when it looks at the sun. This could be challenging)
11)  Biting of nails (tried once, couldn’t work out how to bite them. Won’t be starting now)
12)  Washing up and gardening without gloves (I confess, I have bright pink marigolds, but am yet to put them on)
13)  Waxing or shaving the armpit with a manual razor (am hoping chemo will take care of any unwanted hair for a while)
14)  Tight jewellery or clothing (should be ok)
15)  Heavy shoulder bags (given I love to carry at least two bags at any one time, this is going to be particularly challenging)
16)  Arm strain through digging, pulling or lifting heavy bags (sounds like permission to sit drinking Pimms while Duncan does the gardening if you ask me)

NB: Please comment and add if I’ve missed any tips

Looks like I am going to become very closely acquainted with a large tub of aqueous cream (currently being applied to my tummy and boob) and antiseptic lotion (my new best friend should I get a cut, bite or baking burn).

I may have failed to achieve today’s tasks, but I still left the hospital with a spring in my step. While measurement man was measuring my height in the corridor, my breast surgeon did a double take and, realising it was me, came along to say hello. Impressed by how straight and well I looked, he gave me the biggest of smiles and said how lovely it was to see me. It may not have been a statement based on any medical examination (and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had failed the arm test), but his smile certainly made me feel I must be doing something right. I’ll take that.

Let’s hope I can successfully be in two places at once on Monday – and that somebody will be able to find a vein!

Breast cancer lesson number 20: It’s amazing what cancer will take away when you least expect it

Loss and cancer are like butter and toast – they belong together. So far, I have focused a lot on the positives surrounding this frightening illness (time with friends, happy memories, mashed potato and the excuse to stay in fluffy slippers all day long). The trouble is, cancer likes to give with one hand while taking something away with the other.

By loss, I don’t mean death (I haven’t gone all philosophical on you). By loss, I mean the things cancer (or its treatment) won’t let you do any more – be that temporary or permanent. We all hear about temporary hair loss with chemo (that might turn into permanent hair loss on the legs if I’m lucky). But there are other losses lurking, waiting to crop up and catch you off guard. The only loss I was actually hoping for was a bit of weight loss, so imagine my surprise when the breast care nurse said I should prepare myself to gain up to three stone while on chemo! I give you all full permission to march me to a treadmill is that happens!  

Temporary loss is easy to handle. The loss of sensation in right my armpit doesn’t trouble me and the fact walking to the station behind my house is like running a marathon is just a small hurdle I will overcome (did one giant circuit today so am gaining strength every day). And, you could argue, not being allowed to lift anything heavier than a kettle for six weeks is a bonus!

Permanent loss is a little different. I can’t say I’ve shed any tears over the fact I can no longer use a razor to shave my right armpit (for fear of lymphoedema) or the fact I won’t be able to hold my arm out straight with a weight in it (was never very good at my Bums, Tums and Thighs class anyway). I am even learning to love my new boobie (complete with a bit of my tummy skin as well as fat) after the old cancerous one was taken away (and I will get a new nipple tattooed on eventually). No, the loss that hit me, was finding out nobody wants me to donate my blood anymore.


This wasn’t the first loss that came to mind when I thought about life after cancer. After having received two texts and a letter about a possible donation appointment last week, however, I thought I’d give them a call to explain. I did a bit of research, which said it looked like things could return to normal after a good five years (maybe more for the hormone therapy). I called up thinking I was going to save them a bit in postage costs. I didn’t worry when the lady said she’d just have to: ‘go and check’. So, I wasn’t expecting her to say: ‘I’m sorry, you won’t be able to give blood again.’

Now, don’t get me wrong. I won’t miss the little blood bus, the pricked finger and the cotton wool ball you get at the end to cover the hole (I thought a packet of biscuits, a bag of prawn cocktail crisps and a glass of squash in exchange for a pint of blood was a fair trade though). It’s the fact that when you want to do your bit to give something back and the cancer says no, it’s quite hard to take. Loss is easier to accept, when you know what to expect. What else will cancer want to take from me before my treatment is over?

I decided early on in this process, however, that cancer won’t win! So, while I may not be able to give blood any more, I can act as a blood ambassador, encouraging all of those reading this who can donate blood to donate blood. It may just be one pint. You may get the bug and sign up for life (you do get a credit card sized membership card is that sways you). It doesn’t hurt much (unless you hate needles, go white at the sight of blood and find the whole thing a little bit weird – in which case I would say back away from the blood bus). It takes half an hour and it can change someone else’s world! In my mind, that makes it a very good use of half an hour.

I appreciate that it won’t feel as positive being the back seat passenger while you hand over your veins to a nurse. But, I want to turn this loss into somebody else’s gain.

Thanks all for giving me the strength to fight in the face of loss. For every thing cancer takes I will smile twice as hard. Maybe one day, it will get the picture and stop taking things away.