Beautiful Table Mountain

Not exactly a hotel room – which I would have preferred, but I recently had the experience of “checking in” to this room with a view. It was the day that I had my lumpectomy.

That was just almost three weeks ago and my recovery is going well. Although I unfortunately developed a painful post surgery complication (cording), thankfully my body is responding well to physical therapy to treat it. The point of this blog post is I would like to share my experience and tell about how marvelous I think modern medicine is.

There were two things that needed to be removed from my body on the day of surgery – the cancerous tumour as well as sentinel lymph nodes.

Thus, on the morning of the op, after being admitted I was taken to the radiology department where they performed an ultrasound. Using the ultrasound they inserted a guide wire to the site of the tumor where they ‘hooked it’. The purpose of this was to quickly direct the surgeon during surgery, to the piece of tissue that needed to be excised.

Notably, the day before surgery, I had gone to a different radiologist who injected some mild radioactive substance into my breast so that they could trace the sentinel lymph node using an apparatus that measures radioactivity.

Thus, when the surgeon started my surgery, it was a matter of “following the bread crumbs”. First, he followed the guide wire to remove the cancerous lump and small margin of tissue around it. Then, they used the radioactivity detector apparatus to locate the two lymph nodes, for him to remove. It was all done and dusted in under two hours.

Insertion of the guide wire
The ultrasound image used to find the cancerous tumour
Soft mammogram to confirm all in place
Taped up… ready for surgery

So surgery went very well, and I was feeling quite good considering circumstances – well enough to go home. I was discharged without spending even one night in hospital. Feeling so good in fact, that I even went for walks for two days after surgery.

However, I started feeling pain in and under my right arm and breast area from about three days after surgery. Significant pain from four days. I thought that I was possibly overdoing it, in the sense of using my arm too much. So I tried to minimize using my arm and started using more painkillers. Little did I know that that was the wrong thing to do.

What started happening was a condition called “cording”. My body’s response to the removal of lymph nodes was the nerve tissue in that area started to contract and sort of go into spasm – ultimately forming a tight cord running from the side of my breast, through my armpit and into my upper arm. Instead of trying not to move the arm, I should have been moving it as much as possible to prevent cording – but at the time I did not know that.

Hellishly painful is an understatement. I also had a little bit of swelling and inflammation around the surgical site (called seroma). Fortunately, I had a follow up doctor’s appointment booked one week after surgery and the diagnosed the problems and referred me to an occupational therapist for treatment.

Treatment was very painful but thankfully also very effective. The swelling in my breast area is gone now. The cord is still there, but it is much better. Still painful, but I think only one tenth of what it was.

And so we go on. I have my next appointment on the 8th July when I’ll finally get confirmation of whether I need chemo or not. The cancerous tissue that was removed during surgery was sent to the Netherlands for special testing to determine if I have Luminal A or Luminal B cancer. Luminal A means I only need hormone treatment and radiation. Luminal B means I need the whole package – hormone therapy, chemo and radiation.

If I don’t need chemo then I start radiation soon after the 8th July – 15 session from Monday to Friday over three weeks. If I need chemo, then I will have chemo first before radiation.

I really hope that I don’t need chemo because last week I was seconded to be the Engineering Faculty Teaching and Learning coordinator for the next six months! of course I’ve said yes already because was at opportunity this is! At present I would say that would be my next dream job…. A step up from my current post as senior lecturer and postgraduate coordinator in my department, to academic staff developer and coordinator, sort of a lecturer and facilitator for the all the lecturers in the Engineering Faculty at my university. However, if I have to have chemo then I need to reconsider.

Yes – life is full of surprises indeed. The good with the bad. And the only thing that makes sense to me is just to take everything day by day.

My room with a view