A breast cancer survivor recently emailed me, upset by media reports on a new study, the results of which led researchers to the conclusion that many women with early breast cancer do not need surgical removal of the cancerous lymph nodes in the axilla (armpit).
This is a huge deal, since patients who undergo the surgery are far more likely to have complications like infections, abnormal sensations, fluid collecting in the armpit and lymphedema. The survivor who emailed me had the surgery and now suffers from chronic arm problems. With her permission, this is how I responded:
As the Healthy Survivor you are, here are some things to think about that may help:
- You are healthy now, and that is good.
- You made your decision(s) in the past, before these studies and articles were out. Since you can’t go back, your wishing you hadn’t done it will never help you get good care or live as fully as possible (i.e., regret will never help people be Healthy Survivors).
- The longer you and I survive our treatments, the more we will hear of better, safer, less toxic treatments than the ones we received. I had treatments that no oncologist would prescribe today because we now have better -- more effective and less toxic -- options. I am at peace, because the treatments I received were the best options at the time AND THESE TREATMENTS GOT ME TO TODAY.
- Feel free to feel whatever you feel, including anger and renewed grief. They reflect your attempt to come to terms with this new information and then move on. So find a way to express your anger (like emailing me!) and grief (like crying). It’s all good. Then you can let it slip into the past and embrace the life you have today.
- Remind yourself that everything has been done with your best interests in mind; nobody did anything with intent to hurt you. Remind yourself that many, many women are in your exact shoes regarding lymphedema. Remind yourself that some women let it ruin their lives and others find ways to adjust to the reality of their unwelcome—and now avoidable—chronic condition.