For months, I have been advocating to bring more attention to the long-term psychological impact of cancer. But this time, I’m going to share a couple anecdotes about the bizarre physical effects of my breast cancer experience three years ago that are just now beginning to surface. These effects include lymphedema and cataracts.
If you prefer to listen to the audio version of “The Unexpected Physical Effects of Breast Cancer,” please click below:
I have hesitantly accepted that the physical and psychological after-effects of breast cancer will be present for the rest of my life. Technically, my breast cancer is in remission. With any luck, in February 2020, at my five-year survivor anniversary, I will finally be declared cancer-free by my medical team. Cancer terms confuse me, and like much about the process, some information seems counter-intuitive and contradictory.
What I do know, though, is that my body has permanently changed in several unpleasant ways. Here goes…
I have chronic lymphedema in my left hand and wrist. Lymphedema is caused by a blockage in the body’s lymphatic system, which is part of the immune and circulatory systems. There are clusters of lymph nodes throughout the body that serve as filters to attack and destroy germs and foreign particles in lymph fluid.
Since my breast cancer spread to the axillary lymph nodes in my left armpit, a cluster of six lymph nodes in my left armpit were removed during the surgery part of my treatment. Later, months after radiation ended, I found out that the bundle of lymph nodes near my left collar bone likely got “fried” during radiation, because my skin got severely burned in that area and those lymph nodes don’t appear to be working now. As a result, my left hand is perpetually swollen, and swells even more on hot days. I have tried lymphatic massage therapy, used a lymphedema pump, and now I do daily exercises, including rebounding, to stimulate my lymphatic system. But nothing makes the swelling in my left hand go away. My oncology team declared last year that my left hand will likely be swollen for the rest of my life.
Even though I hate having what I call “Miss Piggy hand,” I slog on. I had been wearing my wedding ring on my right hand since late January 2016, when Rene and I attended a dinner party in a warm house and my hand swelled up so much that I barely got my ring off my finger in time. But earlier this year, I decided I wanted to wear my wedding ring on my left hand again. I was determined to stop accommodating cancer.
So, earlier this month, I stopped by the jewelry store where I typically have my watch batteries replaced. When I got to the front of the customer service line, I asked if they could re-size my ring, explaining the reason for my request. “I’m so sorry you went through that,” said the kind woman behind the service counter. “Absolutely, we can help you.” She analyzed my wedding ring and said a few complimentary words about the shape and cut, then asked if she could check the wedding ring finger size on my left hand. I handed her a (fake) ruby cocktail ring that I sometimes wear on that finger, then told her I wanted my wedding ring resized to the same size as the cocktail ring.
She placed the cocktail ring on her ring sizer, then exclaimed in a shockingly loud voice, “You need a size nine and one-quarter! That’s two sizes larger than your current wedding ring!”
At that point, everyone in the store stopped talking and turned to see who the fatso was.
I felt humiliated and angry, but I responded calmly.
“Yes, lymphedema is one of the unfortunate things about cancer – one of the many side effects that no one hears about. To be honest, though, I am grateful to be alive. I just want to wear my wedding ring on my left hand and be normal again.”
“Well, we’re going to have to cut the ring and build up the shank in order to make the ring that much larger!”
“I realize it’s going to be costly,” I said. “But I’d like to have it done. This is very important to me.”
Now, I have always been envious of women who wear size 5 rings or smaller because their fingers are dainty and petite. Unfortunately, dainty and petite have never been words used to describe me. Especially not since breast cancer.
Next, my eyesight. I began wearing glasses and contact lenses in high school, and my eyesight has deteriorated ever since. Thanks to chemotherapy, I have developed cataracts in both eyes. Eight months ago, during my annual eye exam, my eye doctor told me I would need cataract surgery in about two years. But my vision started getting worse earlier this spring, so I went to the eye doctor the day after the humiliating wedding ring experience and learned that my left eye needs cataract surgery now. When the eye doctor asked me to read the top line of letters on the wall with only my left eye, I couldn’t see any letters, just blurry images. I felt like I was trying to read through waxed paper. I could tell she was concerned.
“Did something about my cancer treatment cause this to happen?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Likely the steroids you had to take during chemo made your cataracts develop much sooner. Steroids accelerate everything in your body. You were always going to develop cataracts, but the steroids likely caused them to develop much sooner.”
Ultimately, I decided to take my eye doctor’s recommendation and amp up my contact lens and glasses prescriptions instead of having the cataract surgery in my left eye now. That’s two contact lens prescription changes in less than a year, and likely cataract surgery in both eyes before I turn 55.
Despite all the body drama, I remain grateful. But now I’m concerned again, wondering what other natural aging challenges will be occurring sooner than expected.
Anxiety: Yet another psychological side-effect of the long-term physical impacts of a traumatic health experience.
In Colorado and many western states where wildfires are too common this summer, we often hear the term “burn scar.” The term refers to areas that have been ravaged by wildfires where grass, trees and shrubs have not yet grown back to keep the charred soil from eroding during heavy rainstorms.
I have decided to refer to the lasting psychological and physical effects of my breast cancer experience as my “cancer scars.” A dear friend of mine, who happens to be a graphic artist, came up with the images for a saying I trademarked: “Cancer is never invited, and cancer never leaves.”
I am thankful for the compassionate, understanding and concerned people in my life committed to helping my cancer scars heal!
Until next time,