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Once I began to move and groove my arms again after surgery, I noticed a tight band in my left armpit. I assumed it was some sort of tendon that was shortened in the axilla surgery (where 6 lymph nodes were removed). It restricted my movement and was incredibly painful ~ it felt like a tight piano string from my armpit down through my forearm and wrist. I showed my plastic surgeon and he encouraged me to keep stretching and massaging it with oil. Believing a gentle approach is always best, I was slow & mindful with it.
A week later, I met with my breast surgeon and she examined it with a concerned look on her face. She said it was a fibrous band and needs immediate attention. I later learned that it’s also called “Axillary Web Syndrome” or “Cording.” Isn’t it funny how when a medical name is put to something, it sounds so much scarier? It’s a rare complication after a Sentinel Lymph Node Biopsy or Axillary Lymph Node Dissection where scar tissue forms at the surgery site and then long, thick, painful cords form down the arm or chest. What’s weird is that they do not know for sure what the cords are made of ~ it could be hardening of the lymphatic channels (thus creating a greater risk of lymphedema), blood vessels, or nerves. It can last a couple of months or a lifetime. Although there isn’t much research yet, the therapy to address cording is still the same: #stretchandmovethisshit.com.
As the breast surgeon wrote the referral for physical therapy, she said that I could not begin radiation until I had full range of motion on the left side. You need to hold your arms above your head for 10-15 minutes during radiation. She said that she wants me doing handstands at our next appointment in 3 weeks. Gulp. I was also receiving weekly “boob fills” from my plastic surgeon which made the cording even tighter. It was a pretty intense process for me, yet also very cool to see my boobs grow every week! (more on this later)
After I left the office, I began to feel a tightening in my stomach and throat. Then Anger appeared for a visit. My internal dialogue went something like this…“Are you kidding me? Another damn thing to deal with on top of everything else? I’m just starting to feel “normal” again and now THIS! And why wasn’t this band thingy listed in the MASSIVE amount of paperwork I had to read before surgery?!!! I signed off on EVERY possible side effect/complication, including DEATH!!! They didn’t prepare me for this!” And then Despair started bargaining, “I just want a break…please. No more universal tests. Enough. White flag is up.” A little whisper from Curiosity snuck in: “Hey, what if this is a good thing? You never know what cool things this could lead to.” Anger + Despair + Depression ganged up on Curiosity: “SHUT-UP Ms. Try-to-look-on-the-bright-side-of-everything and just admit it, this SUCKS BUTT.”
So Anger’s gang won for a few hours.
On the car ride home, I vented to my mom and my brother on the phone. Then at home to my husband who extended an invitation to inquiry (The Work of Byron Katie). Exploring two thoughts in particular really began to shift my experience:
Cording is going to make my life more difficult.
The surgeon didn’t prepare me for this complication.
Through inquiry, I came to discover I had no proof that cording would make life more difficult. In fact ~ I had more proof it would make it easier. There was nothing “new” I needed to learn ~ I had an expert physical therapist for that. And even though my job as a Yoga Therapist is working with bodies and helping them heal, I felt a little nervous with my own body after this surgery. So, now that’s my physical therapist’s job! In fact, it’s quite easy for me ~ I just show up and do what she says, ask questions, learn, repeat. Hmmmm….maybe this cording thing is better than I thought.
Through questioning my thoughts about the surgeon, I saw how well she did prepare me for this situation ~ the moment she saw it, she recognized it, and sent me directly to physical therapy. She was also very encouraging about me moving my arms right after surgery ~ actually, while still IN the hospital ~ I may have babied my arms more than necessary. “I didn’t prepare me for this complication” is truer ~ and when I was believing my thoughts, I was full of blame, anger, and guilt. I saw images of the cords multiplying until I have zero use of my arm for the rest of my life. They felt so solid and permanent. Plus, where did the label “complication” come from? My mind.
Without these thoughts, I hear a sweet, calm, open-minded “follow the simple instructions” voice. Curiosity steps in (ie our true nature) and an openness to seeing the blessings unfolds. And that’s what I did.
Placing the blame or judgment on someone else leaves you powerless to change your experience; taking responsibility for your beliefs and judgments gives you the power to change them. ~ Byron Katie
Medical City has the STAR Program ~ a branch of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation that specializes solely in working with cancer patients. After my first session, I was blown away by its awesomeness. It turns out physical therapy is super similar to yoga therapy and it’s paid for by insurance! Guess what cording led to? Free private yoga therapy with one of the coolest therapists ever, Tiffany. Her mother is a breast cancer survivor and she is a complete expert in this field. I freaking LOVE it! I’ve learned so much about my body, anatomy, alignment, stretching, and strengthening. I now even incorporate some of the new moves with my private yoga clients. Yep, it’s actually made me better at my job.
We started with a lot of slow, deep stretching, followed by her manually stretching and massaging the cords (oh yes, more cords appeared!) ~ it was extremely painful at first…but the hurts-so-good pain that you can tell is making a difference. She also gave me a daily home practice that I followed to a T and incorporated into my own yoga practice. I loved getting creative at how I could blend it all together.
She had warned me that the cords can make a crunchy noise and even snap as they break up ~ this is a good thing. I experienced a small snap at home during self massage and then during one PT session, there was an extremely loud POP in my armpit as she was stretching me. It was the oddest sensation…like a firework exploded in my armpit…it actually wasn’t very painful in the moment but then the remembering of the unfamiliar sound & sensation led to an unplanned outburst of, “holy shit, fuck, shitballz!” in a room full of strangers. 😉
Within a few weeks, I experienced a drastic shift in my body ~ I had gained full range of motion back along with the confidence to move and use my arms in all daily activities. The cording was still present, but I felt unattached to the outcome – I saw so clearly how I could live a full life with and without this cording. The cording just keeps me in my yoga practice. (See – The Work of Byron Katie keeps working its magic!) And then within two month, the cording left me.
I chose to continue physical therapy as long as I could, which included through most of radiation…we began to work on more strengthening and flexibility in my upper body and core. I honestly think I have even better posture and more strength than I ever have before. I am also convinced that Tiffany takes pleasure in torturing me…perhaps this is “payback” for all of the times I have dug my elbows into clients trap muscles and butt muscles in thai massage & yoga. Well, IT WORKS!
Now I have “graduated” from the Star Program and I HIGHLY recommend physical therapy for ANYONE recovering from surgery or experiencing side effects from treatment. There’s no need to wait for a complication to appear, most doctors can write a referral for you if you request it. And most forget to mention this option to you. I’ll be doing it after next year’s reconstruction surgery (ie – Build-Bethany’s-Beautiful-Boobies Surgery).
So here I am, a strong, flexible, and even more educated yogini…thanks to that sweet little “complication” which is really just a huge blessing. The next time I face a similar challenge, I now have more proof that the universe is kind. It all happens FOR me.
Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do. ~ Byron Katie
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10 thoughts on “When Complications Become Blessings”
Wow- that’s some powerful stuff. Your Byron Katie wisdom is tailor made for this adventure. It obviously translates to many other things but, boy-oh-boy, it is so very useful for the big ticket items. I can imagine that it is simplest to lapse into blaming when one is exhausted, stressed out and tired. However the more evolved approach is better for the soul and doesn’t destroy you with anger and other useless exercises.
You are looking gorgeous, by the way.
All my love,
Evelyn S. Clark
D: 713-360-0334 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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Bethany I sure wish we lived closer. You amaze me how you can talk yourself down from something very upsetting. I’m the exact opposite. I talk myself to crazy land every time something bad happens. I’m in terrible pain right now and I need to go to a new pain Management Center. I’m fighting it. Listening to you just changed my mind. I can’t wait to get there.
You are so well trained by Byron Katie. It’s impressive. I need to start reading his Books and I need to take Yoga.
I’m so glad your feeling so much better and I pray that the radiation part of your treatment goes very smooth for you. I can’t wait to read you next installment.
All My Love to you,
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Yep. For a little while
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Wow, thank you for this! Fascinating! I’m learning so much from you. ❤️ Sending love to you!!! Amy
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Thank you Bethany. I am coming up on a year after I took a trip to Mexico to seek alternative treatment for Breast Cancer. I was very adamant about not having any kind of surgery or chemo and healing from the inside out. Then I was propositioned by the doctors in Mexico that I could have a stronger vaccine created if I allow them to remove the 1 infected lymph node. For some reason that day I wanted to surrender and trust and so I did. I have been beating myself up over it ever since because of how ugly my armpit became with a knotty scar and the cording. Which thanks to you I have a name for it now. I had no idea what was happening with my body and I thought maybe once the cancer goes away I will have a plastic surgeon clean things up. Thankfully finding your blog I see that I need to get some attention now for this. And thank you for allowing me to see where I was placing my blame. I would have said no in a heartbeat if I was fully informed. I’ve been telling myself my soul must have wanted to experience this for a reason and now I get to remove the blame also and be fully responsible for it. Thank you for that lesson.
I am seeing the whole journey as a learning experience. My motivation pre-diagnosis was 100% in the spiritual aspect of life and the blessing in disguise that the cancer taught me was that I needed to feel my emotions and listen to my body. I have just recently begun a website to speak about my journey of embracing the mind/body/spirit complex to have well being. I am very excited to see it come to life although I am just in the beginning stages.
I think it is great that you are a yoga instructor. I am certified in a special heated yin type yoga and I have been worried that I will no longer be able be in certain positions comfortably. You are giving me inspiration that IT CAN BE DONE! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
Your words ring so true form me too, “the blessing in disguise that the cancer taught me was that I needed to feel my emotions and listen to my body.” YES! A big part of the journey. Where did you do your alternative care in Mexico? I’d love to have it as a resource if someone is looking to handle things all alternatively.
How is the cording going now? Any better?
Love that you’re writing and sharing too! Feel free to send the web site if it’s ready for viewing ~ I’d love to read it. Sounds like we have similar paths 🙂
Big hugs to you, sister!!!! xoxoxoxo
Just curious if the cording spreading to other parts of your body ( ie abdomen neck or other armpit)?
It’s definitely possible to have cording in other areas of your body. My cording stayed mainly in the left armpit and down my left arm. I did experience cording-like symptoms below my left breast that ran through the top of my rib cage. I treated that area the same – lots of massaging and stretching and now it’s gone. If you think you may have cording, definitely go check with your doctor and/or see if you can work with a physical therapist – SOOOO helpful!
Thank you! I needed to read this at this moment : ). Yesterday my surgeon told me that I needed pt and I wanted to scream in the office. I have been very positive and even grateful that my cancer was caught early – I also have wonderful drs and support. Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was very sick with Lyme disease and babesiosis (a parasite that lives/attacks your red blood cells and a co-infection of Lyme). I could not get out of bed for weeks and could not think clearly. I am 50 and been healthy and active most of my life. Yoga has been a physical and emotional anchor since I was 20 – I coached youth sports and taught mindfulness in schools (My background is school psychology). The point is I knew my body and the importance of mind body connection. I tell my own children that blaming others is a waste of energy. There is always going to be the unexpected and changes in life that we can not control. There is so much controversy between doctors and testing and treatments in the lyme world it’s incredibly frustrating. I had over a decade of drs telling me I was I was depressed or Hormonal when I knew my body. It was actually a relief to have breast cancer and go to drs that agreed on diagnosis and treatments. I made a conscious decision to embrace the good In life and the wonderful people and be kind to myself. So why did the mention of pt completely overwhelm me – it was one more unexpected thing. Reading your blog made me pause and make a conscious decision how to approach the next steps. Thank you again for your strength and honesty. You made a difference and reminded me of how the unexpected can be positive.
Wow! You have been through so much and are amazing! It’s so ok to get down in the dumps too – I know that if you’re use to being a positive person, this is new (not fun) territory. I’ve been learning that’s it’s so beneficial to let myself be whatever is coming up – angry, whiny, sad – and to love myself anyways 🙂
I hope you get a lot out of PT like I did! I learned so much and loved having the extra eyes on my body as it healed. Please feel free to reach out to me anytime for support – you’ve got this!
Your cancer sister ❤️