Following is a brain dump of tips, techniques, and products that I found helpful during my cancer treatment and after. These are my personal choices shared for your consideration. As always, check with your medical professional. Ask lots of questions.
I received excellent treatment by the nurses, doctors, technicians and staff I interacted with and am grateful for their care. I feel breathtakingly lucky that my cancer was stage 0/1. It was potentially aggressive but treatable. My good friend died from metastatic breast cancer. She was a fan of the V Foundation. Cancers like the one I had tend to get the focus because they can be cured and that feels good and is exciting while cancers like hers are talked about less. She supported this organization because of their work with metastatic cancer. If you want to make a donation during Breast Cancer Awareness month (or any time), please consider the V Foundation. Thank you.
“Prehab” – strengthening before surgery
- Why Exercise and Prehabilitation
- Essentrics: Essentrics is a dynamic stretch and strength program that I teach. One of the key elements is taking the joints through their range of motion with fluid yet controlled movements so that you are building strength throughout the range. I credit this exercise with my quick and full return of range of motion following surgery. If you want to build up strength and range of motion before surgery, consider taking a couple live classes and looking into the streaming service which has 23 to 60-minute videos you could do daily or almost daily. If you are reading this, you are on my website and can scroll up to link to my class information.
- I did a gentle Essentrics workout before heading to the hospital because I knew I’d be lying in bed all day and wanted to do something good for my back and my body.
- Swimming: I swam up until the day before my surgery and scheduled my surgery to coincide with the closing of our summer swim area so that I wouldn’t miss a day. I remember that last swim in the hazy green blue water. Otherwordly. Swimming was a big contributor to my “prehab.”
- I recollect reading, or someone suggesting, that I would want tops that I could button up or zip and bras that closed in the front. You may not be able to lift the arm on your surgery side as high as you normally would when getting dressed. I spent a bit of time practicing getting pullover tops on and off without using that arm and found that to be easy. Maybe try this yourself and see what you are comfortable with.
- The Hospital Compression Bra Debacle: Didn’t know I needed one. You probably will. Eventually, I used a soft bra under a zipper front sports bra for better compression on the breast and less tightness on my chest. HerRoom.com is one place to look for compression bras. The hospital bra was extremely tight on my chest and the cup didn’t fit well so it wasn’t supportive. It also had lots of hooks that I needed help closing. Looking back, I can’t believe how many days I wore and slept in that device. A friend tried to order me better bras overnight but they got lost in the mail. There was a frantic search for something that would work. I would suggest finding a solution in advance.
- No water after midnight the night before surgery was stressful for me because I worried about feeling dehydrated. I needed to be at the hospital at 7:00 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m. surgery, but didn’t go in to close to 1:00 p.m. I was fine!
- Every nurse or doctor who read my chart – and there are a surprising number of different procedures before surgery – said “You’re so healthy!” It was a surreal thing to hear when being prepped for cancer surgery.
- I had my surgery during COVID so nobody was allowed to come with me. For me, this was o.k. I used the time to relax and read. The nurses kept bringing me warm blankets. It was like a mini spa day.
- I don’t know if others feel this way, but I had some resentment toward the surgeon and team because they know what happened to my body when I was under anesthesia and I do not.
- A friend of my husband’s dropped off Twin Star Herbals Scar Solution because it had been very helpful to her.
- Bamboo, Micromodal and Tencel clothing feel good on the skin. Look for fabrics without texture, the softest, smoothest fabrics you can find. Even cotton was aggravating to my skin. Boody has luxurious bamboo tops and sleepwear. TomboyX has a Tencel tank I wore all through radiation treatments. Oiselle is my “go to” for workout and regular clothing. Their lux fabrics are soft and smooth. They have some Tencel blends as well.
- Wild Carrot Herbals Nipple Whip soothed my skin. They also have a product called Saffron Seed Nutrient Cream that may sooth and lessons radiation burns, but I did not use this one because I didn’t know about it at the time. My doctor did approve this cream because it contained calendula but I have a feeling the nurse would not have. I was told not use any natural products because they would make the burning worse. I tried a recommended cream first and my skin burned from day one. The Nipple Whip soothed it. I applied it before getting dressed after each session.
- My treatment was an hour away. I drove myself most days but my husband was able to take me once or twice per week and it was such a relief. Having someone drive you to some or all appointments is something to consider.
- In the month between surgery and radiation, I made soups so I’d have food ready. Radiation can leave you very tired and it’s nice to have healthy food already prepared.
- We don’t have a couch but my husband found me an anti-gravity chair. During this time, I’d wrap myself in a down comforter in my chair (my marshmallow chair) and watch “How to Get Away with Murder.” Highly recommend this set-up.
- Box Breathing: breath in for 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, breath out 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds. This technique helped me avoid a panic attack on the table. I’ve heard different lengths for the breath but it’s the pattern that is important.
- Self-delusion can be helpful. I was not at all happy about radiation treatment. I pretended it was sunlight healing my body.
- Radiation leads to bone loss and can lead to osteoporosis. It would benefit all of us to start thinking about how we move to protect our spines and keep our bones healthy. Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation is a good place to start reading more about this. The Too Fit to Fracture brochure also has some helpful tips. Our daily posture and patterns can contribute to bone health or detract from it.
- I brought my team of radiation techs a gift at the end because of the kindness, humor and professionalism they brought to an unpleasant experience.
- The radiation, I believe, contributed to stiffness in my ribs. Not much to do here but move.
- I saw an acupuncturist weekly to help with side effects. I saw her before surgery, throughout treatment, and the year following and she helped me tremendously.
- They initially scheduled me for all late afternoon appointments, which would have been very stressful, and I asked them to move them to the morning.
I was prescribed Tamoxifen starting with a quarter dose. I took it for 4 days and then refused to put another pill in my mouth. Some people do not have side effects or choose to live with them. I don’t recall the exact details but they were a dark and miserable 4 days. Not taking the drug was a quality of life and life-sustaining choice for me. My doctor would prefer I take it but I’m low risk for recurrence and she is o.k. with my decision.
Exercise Post Surgery/Stiffness Following
- Recommended exercise after surgery: None! I am not sure if this is because I already exercised or because they considered my surgery minor.
- Essentrics: I started (gently!) the next morning, modifying as needed. Movement is essential for mental and physical health, lymph flow, fascia release, range of motion.
- Swimming: Didn’t swim until the following summer (surgery in early September 2020) but it helped release lingering tightness in the chest.
- I was worried about the persistent stiffness in my chest, ribs, and under my arm. When I complained about it, I was dismissed due to my range of motion. Eventually, I got assigned to a PT.
- Physical therapy helped a bit. Primarily we used light weights to try to stretch the tissue and break up adhesions.
- Acupuncture helped quite a bit with stiffness in my chest.
- Over a year later, there is still some stiffness.
- Moving the arm in different ways is helpful at getting at the different tissues to release tightness.
- One of the reasons this is concerning is this very interesting cancer research: Stretching, Connective Tissue, Inflammation and Cancer by the amazing Dr. Helene Langevin.
- Check with your doctor before lymph stimulation if you have active cancer.
- I had one lymph node removed. I was told there would not be side effects from this.
- I got a second opinion on lymph node removal. I was very hesitant to allow this.
- I get swelling in my arm pit. I follow a breast lymph massage routine most days. It’s from The Book of Lymph by Lisa Levitt Gainsley. I assume I’ll have this forever.
- I had swelling in my calf, which was the worst the night of the surgery, and very disturbing for a number of months afterward. I was tested for a blood clot. Again, acupuncture saved the day. It still needs a lymph release every so often but is not swelling like it was.
- Stop Chasing Pain is a great resource regarding lymph. I use his technique on my calf.
- Lymph massage has helped me with an unrelated, ongoing issue. It, like osteoporosis prevention, is a potentially healthful technique that you can explore now. There are contraindications. Again, check with a professional.
- I invested in a Bellicon rebounder. It has a beautiful undulating motion that helps to move lymph. Prior to purchasing the Bellicon, I tried a free, metal spring rebounder. It had its own benefits, but was very stiff. The first day I used the Bellicon I had to pee like crazy and was exhausted. Same thing the second time. After that it was just like normal exercise. I’ve heard that if you do lymph stimulation and you feel unwell in some way, wait until you feel good before repeating the lymph stimulation.
- Exercises in general is good for your lymphatic system. The vertical up and down motion of rebounding and some dance can be particularly helpful. Segements of an Essentrics workout contain that vertical up and down motion as well.
- Potentially, fasting 13 hours overnight can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence. I’m filing this under “can’t hurt, might help.” I have a finicky belly and find short fasts beneficial. Depending on your schedule 13 hours can be easy to do. For example: If you eat dinner by 7 p.m., have breakfast at 8 a.m. or later.
- I sought out a naturopath for support during treatment but didn’t feel it was the right choice for me.
- Recommendation was for loads of expensive supplements taken at various times throughout the day for an indeterminate length of time. Nope. It may have helped but the cost and schedule were not something I could maintain. I do take some supplements like calcium, D and omega 3’s among others, but it’s a fraction of what was recommended.
- One of the recommendations was for a high does of melatonin. My recollection was that this was to prevent new cancer and that I would take it indefinitely. I was told that I’d be groggy for a few days to a week and that it would wear off and I’d feel back to normal. It didn’t wear off and I had brain fog for months after I stopped taking it.
- Limiting alcohol may reduce risk of breast cancer and recurrence. I’ve read less than 2 drinks/week or less than 1/day. There doesn’t seem to be consensus on how much. It may be worth reading up on this to make a decision about if and how much you decide to consume.
- A routine mammogram found the cancer in my breast. It’s worth staying on top of those screenings! I was one of the first mammogram appointments after COVID. The day after the screening I had a biopsy. I met with a radiologist a week or so later so they could tell me the results. Then I met my team: the nurse and surgeon, the radiologist I’d be working with and the oncologist. They wanted to do the surgery within 2 months, followed a month later by 4 weeks of radiation. Followed by Tamoxifen. No chemo. I’m hearing from others that their mammograms have been followed up with MRI’s. I’m not sure why mine was a biopsy and theirs MRI.
- Friends and family will want to help. Let them. Not to be depressing, but one way or another the time will come when you return the favor. Thank you notes, in the meantime, are nice.