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Jessica: Problems in the Breast Cancer Survivor

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Jessica: Problems in the Breast Cancer Survivor
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Jessica: Problems in the Breast Cancer Survivor

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This one is very close to my heart. Few patients feel more misunderstood than those who have gone through the perilous road of Breast Cancer treatment to become Breast Cancer Survivors.

This is the story of a 37 year-old wonderful, previously healthy woman who after undergoing a right breast lumpectomy (removal of a breast mass) with a positive sentinel lymph node (cancer spread to the armpit) went on to a full mastectomy (removal of the entire breast) with removal of all the lymph nodes in the armpit, followed by radiation therapy and five courses of chemotherapy. The whole thing threw her life into chaos and was very difficult, but she was strong and determined to get it over with. She is a mother of two and a wife, plus she works full-time in environmental services at a big hospital. In the end, she was cancer-free after several follow-up visits to her oncologist, so these visits were to be longer in between. She had connected with the Breast Cancer community and celebrated so many of these amazing outcomes with friends who supported her all along. She could see how in spite of the long and difficult time, life would fall back in place for them. Now it was her turn. However, things were not going so smoothly for her. Her feet had a burning sensation that progressed throughout the day to become almost unbearable by the end of a working day. The scar from the mastectomy had never quit hurting; in fact, that dull and at the same time sharp sensation seemed to be getting worse, it made it very difficult for her to elevate her right arm to do simple tasks such as brushing her teeth. In addition, the pain extended down her arm which felt so heavy due to the lymphedema (a consequence of the lymph nodes removal in the armpit that causes swelling of the arm). Her oncologist, being familiar with these effects of cancer treatment started her on medication for pain which included not only “pain pills” but also medication for nerve pain because of the suspicion that the burning feet and surgical scar pain is the result of nerve damage. Although the symptoms improved initially, they soon returned to previous severity. Because she felt she was lucky to have survived cancer, there was a sense of guilt in communicating her suffering to her family, friends and even her doctors. She did not want to look “whiny”, that would be being ungrateful and she was not finding as much sympathy at work to take time for doctors visits. But nerve pain is very difficult to treat, so symptoms continued to be a source of constant distress and depression. When she came to The Peregrine Institute, her quality of life was at an all-time low. “Imagine walking over pins and needles all day” was the first description of her situation. She was keeping everything inside and did not share her suffering because she was ashamed and felt weak, after all “she was alive”.
Her treatment over the course of months required several medication switches and dose adjustments, especially compounded topical creams, intermittent injections and electrical therapy on the painful nerves called Radiofrequency Ablation, therapy for the lymphedema, massage therapy and nutritional support. Ultimately, she improved dramatically but it was the feeling of being understood and validated that gave her the strength necessary to get better.

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