For those of us whose favorite month is October, our pleasures include everything pumpkin, crisp air, and a trek through the woods to view its spectacular wardrobe transformation. Speaking as a navigationally challenged hiker, the signs along a path that convey simple guidance to help you determine whether to veer right or left are heaven-sent!
October is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, more than 250,000 American women – mostly fifty years and older -- get breast cancer annually. It is second to skin cancer in being the most common cancer among American women. Men can get breast cancer too, but in the United States that is limited to approximately one percent of diagnoses.
Panhandle Home Health’s (PHH) focus this month is on recovery from breast cancer, and we want to present some basic information to assist those who are traversing its challenges.
According to the CDC, there are several treatment options for breast cancer, and physicians determine which to utilize depending upon the type and how far it has spread. Frequently breast cancer patients receive more than one type of treatment. Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapy, and radiation therapy.
A Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) – lbbc.org – article entitled “Recovering from Breast Cancer Surgery” relates that sensitive skin, sore muscles, and fluid buildup are sometimes byproducts of the surgery that is commonly part of breast cancer treatment. Healthcare providers should give patients information after surgery about what may be expected, and patients should consult them immediately if discomfort or redness around the surgical incision or the site of an external drainage device increases. Physicians typically remove drainage systems one week post-surgery, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Some treatment plans include breast reconstruction. The Mayo Clinic explains that the reconstruction process most frequently begins at the time of the cancer operation, although it may be delayed and performed during a separate surgery. The reconstruction process may take from six to eighteen months to complete.
LBBC states that treatments for the pain that results from surgery include
- over-the-counter medications, like Tylenol or Advil;
- prescription medicines;
- gentle yoga.
A patient can also mitigate pain by selecting clothing that maximizes comfort.
- Shirts and nightgowns that are front-buttoning or -zipping (to avoid raising arms or reaching behind one’s back);
- Sports bras that close in the front, or mastectomy bras.
In an October 10, 2020, Chicago Sun Times article entitled “Physical therapy can be a key factor in recovery following breast cancer,” Sandra Guy writes that physical therapy “can halt pain and loss of mobility, especially in breast cancer patients’ arms and upper body resulting from breast or lymph node surgery.” Obtaining physical therapy that includes gentle stretching immediately after surgery may help patients avoid cording, or Axillary Web Syndrome, caused when tissue under the arm scars and results in restricted mobility.
Regular cardio and weight-resistance exercises are important thereafter to decrease the risk of muscle and bone loss. Note, however, that healthcare providers frequently advise patients who have undergone mastectomy or reconstruction to avoid lifting heavy objects (10+ pounds) for the first week or two after surgery.
Breastcancer.org is a source of practical information about the “everyday realities” of breast cancer recovery and tips for self-care during the process. Their suggestions include
- choosing proper foods to obtain the nutrients required to support health, manage weight, and build energy;
- exercising to lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence, maintain healthy weight, and ease treatment side effects;
- caring for fingernails prudently to prevent lymphedema, a condition that develops when lymph fluid accumulates in the soft tissues of the arm, causing it to swell, and to address the adverse effects of chemotherapy on fingernails;
- using skincare products and regimens that soothe the dry, flaky, and sensitive skin that often results from chemotherapy and radiation, and following sun-exposure precautions required due to those treatments;
- taking catnaps, establishing routines, keeping lists, and making notes to manage fatigue and its effect on memory and concentration.
Bone loss and infection, Breastcancer.org indicates, are conditions that a patient on the recovery path should monitor.
- Some breast cancer treatments, including hormone therapy, can speed up bone loss or cause a patient to lose more than she normally would; other hormonal therapy medicines actually help protect bones. A patient who will receive hormonal therapy or chemotherapy will likely undergo a baseline bone density scan (DEXA) before treatment begins. Patients are encouraged to ask their physicians about bone-health protective measures.
- A study published in the journal Breast Cancer Research (January 2016) indicates that chemotherapy weakens parts of the immune system for at least nine months after treatment is completed, so it is imperative to take measures to protect against infection. Furthermore, if lymph nodes have been removed, there is a long-term risk of infection. Consequently, it is critical to maintain personal hygiene, avoid germs, cuts, and skin breaks, to keep the area of a chemotherapy port clean and dry, and to practice food safety.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists cautions that some types of chemotherapy and estrogen-blocking medications may increase the risk of heart disease in some women. It is important to work with a gynecologist or primary care physician to keep an eye on overall health via screening tests and blood pressure checks.
An individual’s breast cancer recovery is unique because there are many variables involved: the patient’s age and pre-existing health conditions, the type of breast cancer and the treatment plan, the assistance available to a patient from family and friends. If you or your loved one requires some support to surmount the obstacles of the journey, PHH can furnish physical therapists and physical therapy assistants who are skilled in improving mobility, nurses who will change dressings and monitor drainage devices, and other homecare professionals who are committed to optimizing others’ physical and emotional well-being. Please remember, PHH is available to provide direction, and they will meet you whenever, and wherever, you feel lost!