Imagine hearing the words, "You have breast cancer." These are the words that many women, so unexpectedly hear…
There are so many things that come to mind when you first hear those dreaded words. Complex feelings, many uncertainties, and so many questions. Then, almost immediately, you are presented with information….so much information. This information can be completely overwhelming. Your time is occupied meeting with physicians and hearing words that you may have never heard before. You are presented with different procedures and treatment options, none of which sound like good options at all. Then, before you know it you are in an operating room, undergoing a biopsy or preparing for major surgery. It is no wonder that the long term impacts and your life 'after cancer', are not yet concepts you can wrap your head around. However, I am here to tell you THERE IS LIFE AFTER BREAST CANCER! Every woman's journey is a little different, but I have seen firsthand the strength and determination of each of my breast cancer patients.
I am an occupational therapist, and I specialize in cancer (or oncology) rehabilitation. I did not set out to specialize in this area of therapy, and I used to be just as scared of the BIG "C" word as the rest of the general population. However, upon becoming certified to treat the most common complication of breast cancer, lymphedema, I was immediately faced with trying to help woman after woman through her journey of facing breast cancer head on. I knew that I had, without a doubt, found the specialty type of therapy I was meant to practice. A decade ago, when I first started seeing breast cancer patients for lymphedema, I realized there was SO MUCH MORE that I needed to learn to help these women. These brave women came to me with so much more than just surgical scars and pain. They came with more than just arm swelling and problems with their range of motion. They came with more than the physical changes to their bodies. They came with so many questions they were uncomfortable asking their doctors. They came with physical side effects and emotional scars from this life-altering diagnosis. They came to see me for a road map of navigating through this unwanted journey. They entrusted ME to help them get their lives back and to help them live life to the fullest!
Every therapist dreams of having the privilege and the pleasure of treating a motivated patient, that is willing to do just about anything to get better. A patient who comes to therapy and says the words, "I just want my life back!" That is EVERY breast cancer patient I have ever worked with. You just want to get back to living your life. You didn’t ask for cancer. You DO NOT deserve to have cancer. You are willing to do whatever it takes to be healthy, happy, and get back to enjoying your life. You just need answers to all the thousands of questions you have running through your head. "When can I pick things up again? How high can I reach? Can I work out? When is it safe to resume activity? What about my intimate relationships, how will that change? Can I go back to work? How long will I have these expanders in? When will I be able to JUST LIVE MY LIFE WITHOUT QUESTIONING EVERYTHING?" The list goes on and on.
A decade after beginning to specialize in cancer rehab, and hundreds of hours of continuing education courses later, I still wouldn't know anything at all about treating breast cancer patients if it weren't for all the patients who have trusted me along the way. Each of the brave women who have removed their shirts to show me their scars, their breast implants, and dog ear scars from multiple revision surgeries, have taught me so much. All of the women who have come to me with pain and the inability to fully use their arms who graciously allowed me to help them. All of the women who have been brave enough to confide in me and tell me about how the changes to their bodies have impacted their marriages and caused them to feel betrayed by their own bodies.
There is SO MUCH MORE to a diagnosis of breast cancer than just surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. While those physical agents treat and usually cure the cancer, they don’t return life to someone scarred by the diagnosis.
As an occupational therapist, I take a global approach to treating my patients. During my assessments, I find out what in life matters most to my patients, what's limiting them from fully engaging in life, and getting people back to living their life in the most holistic way possible. I ask questions like:
What could you do before your diagnosis that you can't do now? Pick up your children or grandchildren? Care for yourself? Go to the gym or work? Cook dinner, do housework, go shopping?
Do you stop yourself before engaging in activities because you are scared of hurting yourself or are you unsure what you are "allowed" to do because of fear of developing swelling?
Do you have scars that are sore, painful, or do you have tightness when you move your arms?
How are your relationships? Have they changed as a result of your diagnosis? Are you worried about engaging in sexual relations because of the physical and emotional changes to your body?
Do you have any swelling? Any sensations of tightness, fullness, or heaviness of your arm, chest or breast?
Do you wear the same clothing you did prior to your diagnosis? Do you wear makeup and earrings or has the neuropathy in your fingers changed that?
Do you feel like you have the energy to do all of the activities you want and need to do in a day or do you feel like you’ve aged decades since your diagnosis?
HAVE YOU GONE BACK TO LIVING THE LIFE YOU WANT OR ARE YOU LIVING AN ALTERED LIFE BECAUSE OF YOUR DIAGNOSIS?