Lymphedema and Other Perks of Surviving
"Umm...why is there a dent in my arm?" We were both brushing our teeth. Getting ready to face the day. Preschool drop-off. Milk run. Mediating decisions like Octonauts versus My Little Pony. We live large. The fleshy part of my arm, just below my elbow, was firmer than usual and sporting a welt about the size of my thumb. Another reminder that complications after cancer treatment don't evaporate after ringing that graduation bell. They just....change. Don't get me wrong, life has drastically improved since finishing chemo, surgery, and radiation. I remember committing a few of Eli's board books to memory so that I could snuggle deep into his recliner, lean my head back, close my eyes, and "read" to him....Looking at a restaurant-worthy meal of wild Alaskan salmon and roasted vegetables and thinking, if I just take the first bite, I am sure I can get through this meal....Nodding off at stop lights. My days have progressed from issues of survival to issues of quality of life. And that, friends, is a win. But when it comes to 'bangs or no bangs?' and 'will the new Winco increase traffic in front of Walmart?' and 'when did we last vacuum?'....those issues just aren't my Normal yet. So, that dent?
It was a cautionary sign of "pitting edema", the next progression in lymphedema. Cautionary because it went away with massage and wearing my compression sleeve. But nonetheless, something I need to be acutely aware of. In the same way that I am acutely aware of my activity level. And stretching exercises. Strengthening exercises. Increasing nutrients. Decreasing sugar and alcohol. Scar massage. Lymph massage. Compression garments. Scheduling everything around treatment every three weeks. Scans every six months. Taking pills each night.
Treatment and scans and taking my prescriptions, those are obvious things.
But what if I told you....
My fingers randomly go numb.
When I skip just one physical therapy appointment, I end up with shooting pains in my armpit, and down my right arm.
One week away from yoga and I can no longer reach my arms straight overhead.
Giving myself only a half-hearted massage, or allowing a day of over zealous choring, can lead to swelling and pain, or.....dents.
Turns out lymphedema is no joke. I'm learning to accept this and work life around it.
Prioritize ruthlessly, I read when I was pregnant with twins.
Once upon a time, I'd first take care of the Important Stuff...making meals, cleaning toilets, changing sheets, bathing children...and whatever was left of me would go towards the extracurricular. Building Lego cities and baking cookies, drawing and painting.
But lately my approach is more organic.
Because in a house with three small children, there's always plenty of Important Stuff. Never enough of me. Just folding laundry or washing dishes can (and often do) trigger a swollen, aching hand.
Yesterday was an art day. I ignored six loads of clean laundry piled on the sofa. I skipped the dishes and let Jason make dinner. Instead, I finished a commission piece for a local mama, and celebrated the girls' discovering that red and yellow make orange.
I prioritized. Ruthlessly.
If you are fortunate enough that a diagnosis like Inflammatory Breast Cancer doesn't end your life, it's sure to change it.
I mean, everyone's life has plenty of Stuff. I just had no idea this would be mine.
So much for all those fridge magnets that make it sound like life after cancer is a new book in a new series, not just the next chapter of the same book that's been sitting on the nightstand for two years. So much for the memes and bumper stickers touting: Cancer touched my breast so I kicked its butt!
The truth about life after cancer is a little less glamour warrior, a little more wrinkled t-shirts. It's full days in pajamas, and making an event out of preparing a box of "the orange" macaroni and cheese.
Aggressive cancer treatment can really leave a mark (or several). Sure, some survivors go on to finish triathlons. If you're one of them, awesome!
I'll be over here accepting my achievement award for changing the bedsheets this week.