Archive | January, 2012

First Mammogram Post-Lumpectomy

16 Jan

January 13, 14, and 16, 2012

So, on Friday I returned to the scene of the mammogram which catapulted me on an unexpected journey last year.   Last year’s mammogram – the one with the “suspicious abnormalities” – took me on my journey to a DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) diagnosis and lumpectomy.  This was to be my first follow-up mammogram – almost five months after my bilateral surgery on August 22nd of last year.

I went there feeling calm.  I was not future-thinking or worrying and stressing.  But truthfully, that was probably because I was multi-tasking big time – trying to communicate and coordinate with a sister, a niece, and another caregiver about a doctor appointment for my mother that morning which had been scheduled just the night before.  I wasn’t thinking about the mammogram; I was just concerned with getting there on time while simultaneously making about five phone calls.

Anyway, long story short, the (really wonderful) technician took two x-rays of each breast and showed them to the radiologist who then ordered close-up shots of the surgery site.  The upshot is he found “one calcification”  – right next to the place where tissue had been removed during the lumpectomy.  We’re not quite sure what to make of it.  Does that mean they didn’t get it all after all?  Even though the pathology report said that the margins were clear last August?  Or is this something that happened as a result of surgery?  Apparently calcifications can form after cell injury.  Apparently it’s not unusual to have some appear after surgery and radiation.

This particular  radiologist hadn’t seen me since May 31, 2011.  He hadn’t known until he saw my surgeon’s order for this mammogram that I’d been diagnosed with DCIS and had had surgery on each breast.  He also didn’t have access to my pathology report, so he didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what that “one calcification” meant.  (Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on.)  He said he would call my surgeon to talk with her.

I kind of thought I might have heard from her by now, but alas, no such luck.

I guess I was a bit surprised by what they found but I don’t think any shock or panic showed on my face.  Instead I continued to smile, be polite, ask a question or two.  (Feels kind of strange admitting that, but smiling is usually fairly second nature for me.)  He did ask me a few questions about whether I’d had radiation therapy (RT) or not.  I’m not positive why he was asking.  It could be he was surprised I didn’t get RT (which is how I took it at the time) or it could be because apparently RT can result in some calcifications. (I found this out during later research.)   I suspect he was trying to get a feel for how “suspicious” this one lonely calcification was.  I kind of feel sorry for him having to do a report on this.  How is he going to rate this one little calcification?  How will he determine how “concerning” it is?  (To use a term mentioned in my radiology report last June.)

Mammograms are rated using the BI-RADS system (Breast Imaging and Reporting Data System.)  Radiologists rate their findings 0 through 5. You may recall that my mammograms and ultrasounds last year “earned” a 4.

The wonderful chart explaining these ratings would not copy to this blog.  However here is the verbal description of how a radiologist determines a rating:

“A negative diagnostic examination is one that is negative, with a benign or probably benign finding (BI-RADS 1, 2 or 3).
In BI-RADS 3 the radiologist prefers to establish the stability of a lesion by short term follow-up.
In the evaluation of your BI-RADS 3 lesions the malignancy rate should be < 2%.
A positive diagnostic examination is one that requires a tissue diagnosis (BI-RADS 4 and 5).
In BI-RADS 4 the radiologist has sufficient concern to urge a biopsy (2-95% chance of malignancy).
In BI-RADS 5 the chance of malignancy should be > 95%.”

The radiologist seemed to be unsure what to make of this one microcalcification, so I’m going to guess he’ll rate it a 3 or 4 based on what my surgeon tells him.  I imagine they won’t be able to say it’s definitively benign, so I’m guessing it won’t be a 2.

By the way, macrocalcifications are not concerning.  It’s only the microcalcifications which are.  For those late to this party, here is a brief summary on breast calcifications:

“On a mammogram, breast calcifications can appear as large white dots or dashes (macrocalcifications) or fine, white specks, similar to grains of salt (microcalcifications). Macrocalcifications are almost always noncancerous and require no further testing or follow-up. Microcalcifications are usually noncancerous, but certain patterns can be a sign of cancer. If calcifications are suspicious, further testing may be necessary, including additional mammograms with magnification views or a breast biopsy.”

How do I feel about all this?  Well, on the one hand, ONE calcification can’t be too scary.   First of all, there’s a great possibility it is a byproduct of the surgery itself and therefore completely benign.  And if it is cancerous, it’s only one little spot of it.  But to be honest, one of the things I started to do after listening to the radiologist was second-guess my decision not to do radiation therapy.  RT is supposed to get whatever stray cells weren’t removed during surgery.   It is usually considered “standard  operating  procedure”  to get radiation therapy following a lumpectomy.  Perhaps I was hasty in my decision to not go that route.  Perhaps I should have considered it after all.

I have discovered that microcalcifications often form at the lumpectomy “bed.”  In a study of 402 patients who had a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, 68 developed new calcifications.

The results of the study were: “In 63 cases (93%), the new calcifications developed in the same quadrant as the primary tumor. None of the calcifications initially interpreted as BI-RADS category 2 (n = 40/68; 59%) and category 3 (n = 19/68; 28%) represented recurrent disease. Nine (13%) of 68 calcifications were initially classified as BI-RADS category 4 or 5; six (67%) of the nine were malignant and three (33%) were benign at biopsy.”

You realize, of course, that I am no expert AT ALL on any of this stuff.  The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences, my thoughts, my emotions, and the research I do.  I imagine in a few months or years some of my thoughts and conclusions will seem incredibly naive or even ridiculous, but you are getting a view of what it’s like for a woman as this stuff happens.

Anyway, after worrying a bit, I decided to pull a couple cards from some oracle decks.  The card that resonated with me the most spoke about the power of the words we use and suggested it was a good time for affirmations.  “Say it is so – and it will be so,” the author declared.  SO!  I declare that I am healthy!  (And I do feel healthy!)  I do believe that if I continue to be vigilant with my diet, I will be healthier than I’ve been for many years.  (In fact,  already I have lost weight  and have much more energy.)

Perhaps the whole reason for this one little calcification is to remind me to continue to be vigilant.  I can’t afford to get complacent.  I have to be very conscious of my choices.  My health absolutely depends upon what I feed my body and how I care for my physical, emotional, and spiritual self.

I do want to conclude by reminding myself that even though I can let myself get a bit worried, what I am experiencing is NOTHING compared to what many people on the planet are experiencing.  I am supremely conscious of my friend who only a short month or so ago discovered that her excruciating back pain was the result of cancer which had, unbeknownst to her, formed in multiple places throughout her body.  I think of her often.  It certainly helps me keep my tiny little health issue in perspective.

However, even though my health issue may be minor compared to others’ issues, I know it’s important for me to document this process so that women who go through a similar journey can learn and/or perhaps not feel so alone in their process.  Also, when I write, it helps me to process things.  Also, it’s much easier to write this blog post than to tell every friend and acquaintance the details of what happened!

Thanks for rooting for me, everyone!

May you be blessed.

Healing post-lumpectomy – 3 months later

13 Jan

November 16, 2011

Surgery takes its toll, as I’m sure anyone who has gone under the knife will tell you.  With a lumpectomy, it’s not so much the outer scars  which feel like an issue right now as the stitches inside my body.  I can monitor the external scars and address them as I see fit, but I can’t visualize the inner wounds/stitches/scarring.  These are the ones I worry about a bit.

This past weekend I did a really long drive and near the end of it I was worried because my breasts were hurting quite a bit.  I thought there was a good chance the pain was caused by a combination of more heavy lifting than usual accompanied by wearing a bra that wasn’t sufficiently supportive, but I was still concerned enough to finally call my surgeon’s office and leave a message.

On Monday I got a return call from the physician’s assistant.  I learned something new.  I had had “twinges” of pain that I would feel from time to time.  They were intermittent but concerning.  She informed me these were normal and could be expected for up to a year.  They are indicative of the healing of damaged nerves.

What a relief.  Too bad they didn’t tell me that earlier so I wouldn’t worry.  Don’t you think that would have been helpful to know?

I do wish there had been more information given about what to expect post-surgery.  I mentioned this to the P.A.  She told me that they did give quite a bit of info to those who have had mastectomies, but apparently not to those who’ve only had lumpectomies.  And that’s why I’m glad I’m doing this blog!  So you all can learn through my experiences!

I went online to see what I could discover about healing following lumpectomies, and the truth is there really isn’t much information out there.  I looked both online and in the books I have about breast cancer and nowhere yet have I discovered anyone talking in detail about recovery from lumpectomy surgery after the first couple of weeks.  Everyone in the clinical field seems to think recovery will be pretty quick and easy.  But looking at discussions on the site, it appears there are many women who have swelling and discomfort for several months after the surgery.

For instance, they suggest only that one refrain from heavy lifting or jogging for a couple weeks.  That’s absurd!  Especially for women with larger breasts.  Even with a good support bra, I’d be extremely afraid of jogging.  My breasts still feel way too fragile for that.  My goodness, I still can’t even give good bear hugs without hurting a teeny bit.

What I have discovered is that a sports bra or the surgical bra they put on me in the hospital gave support to the breast tissue, but also created a lot of sensitivity in the nipple area.  Nipples are obviously sensitive areas anyway, but when they’ve been impacted by surgery, they are even more so.  Thus, supportive bras will feel good to the breast itself (especially for larger-breasted women) but may not feel good to the nipple.  My nipples didn’t stop being hyper-sensitive until about two months after the surgery.

As far as lifting and heavy physical activity, I think we need to tune into our intuition.  Among other things, I am a massage therapist, and I was very wary of doing massage again because my right arm/hand is dominant and deeper work most definitely uses muscles in my chest!  The site of my incision is pretty much directly lateral to my right nipple, therefore it is a little lower than most of the pectoral muscles.  However it would most definitely impact the serratus anterior muscles which are involved with a pushing kind of motion.  I was also aware the lifting and pulling motions would impact my breast tissue.

This intuition was born out a few times recently.  I moved at the end of September and into the early part of October.  I tried not to do too much hugely heavy lifting, but I certainly lifted my share of boxes and smaller furniture.  I tried to remember to keep my arm close to my chest so as to not overly stress the chest and underarm muscles, but occasionally I would be caught up in doing things and would be less conscious.  In addition I moved to a place in the country and my landlord asked me to assist with the raking and some other activities that did put some stress on my arm/chest/breast area.   After these activities I started feeling more shooting pains in the underarm area, as well as fatigue/discomfort in various places in my breast.

Apparently any “shooting” or tingly intermittent pains are related to the regrowth of the nerves.  It’s called neuropathic pain.  It makes sense that there would be odd sensations during the regrowth and healing of nerves.  But again, couldn’t they have freakin’ warned me of this so it wouldn’t be a surprise?  What’s up with that???

Other aches in my underarm area I believe are more muscular in nature as my body adjusts to using muscles that I’d been resting for a few months.  I read about one woman who obtained a prescription for physical therapy.  She said the physical therapists were extremely helpful and knowledgeable and spent quality time with her answering questions and making suggestions.  So for any of you larger-breasted women who have physically active or strenuous lives (including things like looking after toddlers or working on a farm), you may want to ask about physical therapy.

All in all, I’d say I’m healing well.  The lumpectomy scar is lighter now and the hardness of the tissue underneath the scar has diminished significantly.  As far as my left breast (where they had removed a milk duct as well as the nodule inside it), the scar is barely noticeable, as the color of the areola disguises it perfectly.  There is a very slight indentation where the milk duct was removed, and the nipple lists ever so slightly toward the scar, but unless you were looking for it, I doubt you would notice these things.

I am really grateful to have had such a skilled and conscientious surgeon.  And once again, I am so grateful to have my breasts, scars and all.

And, oh yes, I’m glad also that I appear to be cancer-free.  Let’s not forget that!  I guess sometimes I’m afraid to count that chicken.  (Is that the right metaphor?)  I don’t want to let my guard down and become complacent.  But for now, oh am I grateful.  May I use this experience to get healthier and healthier and healthier.  There is a lot of life yet to be lived!

Be well, my friends.