Surgery Complications, Surgery Recovery

When Complications Become Blessings

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.

AxWebSyndrome
Cording in Armpit

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.BethanyTiffanyPT

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.

Do you heart this blog? Well it has transformed into a book baby…join my mailing list to get the scoop about its upcoming birth into the world! #mygurucancer

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

 

 

 

Surgery Recovery, Uncategorized

The Gift of a Butterfly

About 2 1/2 weeks after surgery, I received a very special gift from a client & dear friend, Shelby. It was a small plant with a green gem-looking stone hanging over it. She had said that she searched all over for it and thought it was perfect for what I was going through. When I got it, I thought the green stone had some type of healing property ~ I set it on my kitchen island.

I was just starting to feel so much better – physically, mentally, emotionally. Pain was being managed really well (I still claim Midol as the drug that changed everything!) and I was starting to move and exercise my arms again. I noticed that the left side (where I had the armpit surgery) was more restricted & painful than the right. I could feel this thick tendon-like thing in my armpit and down my arm. I showed the plastic surgeon and he said to stretch more. And although it was painful, I continued to gently stretch and move my arms the best that I could. It hurt. But ok, trusting the process.

The next morning, I walked into the kitchen and froze. The green stone on the plant was now a huge, gorgeous monarch butterfly. Just chilling in the middle of my kitchen. My entire being lit up in excitement! Oh my God, what is this? Where did it come from? Turns out the green “stone” was a butterfly cocoon! IMG_3867

Shelby didn’t know this, but butterflies are kind of my thing. I have always loved them and felt a special connection with them. I wrote a poem in 8th grade titled, “I think of myself as a butterfly” and drew a picture of a woman with butterfly wings ~ it made the cover of a booklet distributed at school. I re-wrote the poem when I quit my corporate advertising job and moved to Spain.

For my wedding, we had a butterfly release. We lived at the retreat property where we were married for 4 years and created/ran the business ~ on our last day, we were down by the lake and a butterfly crawled onto our hands.

As I approached surgery, I made the decision that if it were my time to leave this earth as a Bethany, I would return as a butterfly. And I would definitely play adorable butterfly tricks on people and mess with them. In an effort not to freak anyone out before my surgery, I decided to keep this reincarnation plan to myself.

I brought the butterfly gift outside to my balcony and sat in meditation. Before I closed my eyes, I noticed a dragonfly had landed on the railing to my right. This sent “holy shit this is so meant to be” chills down my spine. You see, Shelby has also been deeply affected by cancer ~ she has been a caregiver for 3 of her family members’ journeys with cancer. Her son passed away at the age of 6. Her stories of his courage and wisdom through the process astonished me. She shared with me that there was a point when she was feeling torn about his treatment plan and Clayton said, “Don’t worry Mommy, don’t you know the light is in the doctors too? The light is in everyone.” This brilliant little 6-year old opened my eyes and heart to a new way of looking at surgery and it completely soothed any remaining nerves. Shelby and her family created a foundation – The Clayton Dabney Foundation – to support children with cancer. She said that after he died, dragonflies began appearing in the oddest places. They knew in their hearts, it was Clayton.

Remembering this brought tears. I closed my eyes and breathed. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face. The sound of the wind whistling through the trees. A swell of gratitude overcame me. Look what I’ve done. Look what I’ve been through. And I’m ok! I’m here. Really here. I began to gently move my arms ~ opening and closing them like wings. When I opened my eyes, the butterfly was doing the same. Stretching her wings for the very first time. The dragonfly continued to watch. More tears fell from my eyes. This is my rebirth. I again remembered a deep purpose-filled connection to this journey and to myself.

I texted Shelby in crazy excitement to share my story along with a photo of Clayton the dragonfly. She said that she had no doubt in her mind that Clayton was with me. I then went for a nature walk with an extra pep in my step. When I returned, the butterfly and the dragonfly were gone.

Later that afternoon, I had a post-op meeting with my breast surgeon and I learned that the arm band thing had a name: Axillary Web Syndrome. An extremely rare complication that can occur after surgery and could last a few months or forever.

Crap.

Can my butterfly come back?

Coming up….”When Complications become Blessings”

Do you heart this blog? Well it has transformed into a book baby…join my mailing list to get the scoop about its upcoming birth into the world! #mygurucancer
Surgery Recovery

Self-Discovery while in Recovery

On Wednesday, April 20th, I was released from the hospital after my double mastectomy. Before leaving, I successfully completed the staff’s requirements for discharge: (1) walk by myself — I was rocking slow-motion laps around the hospital the day after surgery, (2) go to the bathroom on my own —Well, you know that story and thank the heavens that that part of my body started working again, and (3) give myself a shower — This took some creativity ~ especially with the drains & limited range of movement ~ but hey, when obstacles arrive ~ creative inspiration is born.

I was wheeled out of the hospital with my stuffed donkey and flowers in hand, and entrusted to my two primary caregivers: Sweet Hubby Travis and Superwoman Mommy. The hardest part was finally over. Or was it?

The first 10 days of recovery had many ups and downs. There were moments of “fuck this shit, I’d rather die than feel this pain anymore” and moments of “wow, I have never felt this loved and supported.” The whole experience turned out to be quite an invitation to look at stressful thoughts that hold me back from self love.

My Relationship with Medicine & Pain

Medicine (in the form of drugs) and I have had a bipolar past. Sometimes I love and appreciate it. Sometimes I fear and curse it. Before this whole cancer thing, I had the privilege of experiencing years of intense migraines. I tried numerous alternative approaches for healing — acupuncture, homeopathy, emotional clearing, different cleanses, various diets, yoga therapy, meditation, sex/orgasms, chiropractics, osteopathy, natural hormone therapy, essential oils, & a few other ways I’m too embarrassed to mention…some things occasionally brought relief, but nothing was lasting. Over-the-counter medicine really did help, especially if I took it right when I first felt the signs of a migraine. But I still really, really resented taking it. And prescription meds scared the crap out of me.

Then I found a 6-week course with Certified Facilitators that dealt with the topic of “Pain & Illness” using The Work of Byron Katie.

The course allowed me to fully explore my thoughts around medicine, illness, doctors, pain, blame, fear…it was life-changing and laid the groundwork for how I was able to walk into a cancer diagnosis & treatment with more peace & clarity. My core beliefs were:

Medicine is bad for me.

I want the pain to go away.

I can’t handle it.

The pain will get worse.

The pain will last forever.

Through bringing these thoughts (and many others) to inquiry, I discovered just how much more physical pain this mental activity brought to my body. When I believed these thoughts, I was full of terror & panic; I’d start frantically searching for a “forever” cure…my body would tense up ~ especially in my neck, jaw, forehead, & shoulders. My breath would shorten or even disappear. I would start to see me having to cancel the rest of the activities of the day, or maybe the week…all of the things I love to do just vanished. I felt like a victim, life was unfair. I saw images of the future as being in a lifetime of pain & agony ~ death being the best option. I would get easily angered by others, especially when they offered advice or tried to help. They haven’t had pain like this – they have no idea what they’re talking about!

I’m sorry, but how could you NOT get a migraine believing all of this shit!?

Without the thoughts, I noticed that I became more curious about the first sensations felt before a migraine. Pain now became a sensation. I also saw the story “I’m going to get a migraine” and it was met with “can I absolutely know it’s true?” Don’t know. Not yet. I was then fully available to take care of myself in the moment, which often looked like laying down in a dark room with an ice pack over my eyes, breathing, noticing & relaxing any physical sensations of tightness in my body. I’d notice I would reach for medicine or not. And often did. When I took it, I invited the medicine in with love and gratitude. I saw it as a healing, friend. Whether it worked or didn’t, wasn’t my business. I was just doing my part. I focused on the present moment instead of getting caught up in what might happen in the future. I became a witness of the thoughts that floated by. Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. It felt simpler, kinder. I recognized that all along, I had the wisdom to take care of myself.

The turnarounds were truer…here are a few examples:

Medicine is good for me. Rather than be in days of pain which can send a “fight or flight” stress response in the body, medicine often alleviated the pain within 20 minutes. It allowed me to spend the rest of the day doing things I love. My body felt calmer and more peaceful. My thinking about medicine is bad for me. Yes, seeing it as an enemy – especially after taking some – only created more stress and panic in my mind & body.

I don’t want the pain to go away. I began to see pain as a gift – it’s a teacher. Actually, it’s my greatest yoga teacher. It helps me to slow down, get in touch with my body, breath, & take care of myself. It introduced me to many different forms of healing and I’ve made life-long connections with others. It has helped me to become a more compassionate yoga teacher & person ~ I now have a reference point for intense pain. Plus, I know exactly what to do if a client has a headache or migraine…I’ve been told my hands are magical 🙂

I can handle it. Well, I can because I did. I always have. There has been absolutely NO proof of me ever “not handling it.” Now, “handling it” can take many forms: going to a doctor, taking meds, breathing, sleeping all day, freaking the F out, crying, netflix therapy, movement, stillness, complaining about it, it’s all welcome.

The pain won’t get worse/the pain will get better. Yes, it always has done this too. And at times when it’s not my experience, it shows me to take a different direction ~ go back to the doctor or try something new. I always find that time heals which leads to my next turnaround…

The pain will not last forever. It NEVER has. Nothing is permanent. But the mind will say it over and over again. I often love to repeat the mantra, this too shall pass.

These realizations were monumental and I truly began to experience pain and medicine as a gift, a privilege. And the pain in my head turned out to be way worse than the pain in reality. Bonus…I started to get migraines less often and needed less medicine. Pretty cool side effect of doing The Work, eh?

I have a friend who didn’t want to take medication. And I said, “God is everything, but not medicine?” God is medicine too. So today she sees it’s a privilege to take medicine. She knows that whether it’s working or not is not her business. The medicine says, “take once a day.” That’s all she has to know. It’s written on the bottle. ~ Byron Katie, Question Your Thinking, Change the World

Finding Self Love

So with this foundation of inquiry and having made friends with medicine, you would think I would have floated through recovery in complete bliss. Yeah, I kind of thought that too. Plus, I was sort of excited to take hard core pain meds. As someone who never experimented with drugs (other than mary jane), I was pretty curious about what it might be like…I heard words like “euphoric” ~ cool! Cancer bonus!

Well, I didn’t breeze through it. Every single thought mentioned above came back with a vengeance. It was like, “Oh really, you think you got this pain thing down? You think you’re totally ok with medicine? I’ll show you biotch!!!” The physical pain I experienced in those first 10 days (in certain moments) was so freaking intense that I could not see the possibility of anything other than…ouch…it hurts. help. ouch. it hurts. so bad. fuck this.

And then I noticed something underneath, which was even more painful: I felt like a complete and utter failure. I shouldn’t be in so much pain. I should be handling this more peacefully. When I took medicine, I hated myself. When I didn’t take medicine, I loved myself. My love was completely conditional. The thoughts kept multiplying until…

I had no choice but to surrender. Surrender “working on myself,” “being evolved,” “being peaceful at healing.” Fuck it. Take the drugs. What? Those drugs weren’t working? Increase the dosage. Go back to the doctor. Take different drugs. Sleep. Cry. What? It hurts like hell to cry, sneeze, or cough? Good. Do it anyways because that’s what’s happening. What? Your mind is distracted and doesn’t feel as much pain while binge watching Netflix? Awesome. Watch more.

Why can’t all of this be self love? Why can’t this be spiritual too?

So once I got over myself, which is really me getting over my thinking of how I should be in this recovery thing…I not only was able to love myself more, I also had some other discoveries…

  • Even though I had pain, there were so many things I was capable of doing! I could go on walks, eat amazing meals, spend time with my family, crack jokes, sing karaoke, have deep heart-felt conversations, post messages/pics on facebook. Even though it took about 90 minutes, I could get myself ready for the day – shower, put on clothes, make-up, cleaned my drains. The pain (again) turned out to be worse in my mind, than in reality.
  • On day 10, I decided to take over-the-counter Midol for my pain because the hard core stuff just didn’t seem to be working as well as I thought it would. This is what had worked before for migraines and what do you know – it ended up being my MIRACLE DRUG. It alleviated my chest pain within 30 minutes and for the first time in 10 days, I felt so much relief and hope.
  • I completely reconnected with my inner child. I loved asking someone to hold my hand. Cuddle me. Pet me. It was my favorite thing in the entire world. And guess what? Someone was always happy to do it. And if I was by myself, I cuddled my donkey and blanket. Yes, I’m 34 and I freaking loved being a baby again. Still doing it to this day (and I’m not in pain).
  • I got to witness my superhuman-caretaker-of-the-year mom in full force! She gave me my meds on time, cooked for me, cleaned the house, held me, helped me vent & cry, and was truly there for me in my darkest moment. This moment was when we realized 5 days worth of meals had yet to exit my body…constipation was one of the medicine’s side effects and I stupidly refused to take the poop drugs in the hospital (hey – I totally rocked handling this side effect with all natural stuff during chemo)…let’s just say after an evening of agony, tears, doing yoga over a toilet, bargaining with God to please just let me poop…mom came to the rescue with a morning enema. I mean, seriously – is that unconditional love or what? (I can see my mom and husband cringing at this very moment…did you really just make that info public? Yes, I did. Because it’s now hilllllllllariousssssss.)
  • I learned to depend on & appreciate my husband more. I’ve prided myself on being an independent, do-it-all myself kind of gal and this whole experience started to shift my relationship with my husband. After my mom left, I had some major anxiety about how in the world we would survive. I had also taken 4 weeks off of work which financially concerned me at times. I worried that I would become a burden to Travis and this recovery time would put a huge strain on our marriage. It was a great thought to question and without  the thought, I got to hear Travis’ heart and how it was his honor to help me in this way. Letting him do things for me and pay for things was his way of loving me. I love that he thought he could do everything for me on top of working full-time and taking care of our Godson. I let him and I also began to outsource which meant….
  • I said YES to help from others. I was unable to have full use of my arms for weeks so when others asked if I needed help, I said YES…can you bring me lunch tomorrow? Yes, can you please bring your adorable dog over for dog therapy? Yes, will you go for a walk with me? Yes, can you do The Work with me? People are so kind. They want to help. It feels good to help. I know this because that’s how I feel when I do things for others. It’s why I love my work so much. Well, it was time for me to say yes to being on the receiving end. After all, “let yourself be pampered by others” was in the doctor’s orders.
  • I got really creative & resourceful. I discovered that I could open the fridge and dishwasher with my feet! My core strength was used to sit up and lay down. I could cook simple meals if Travis left the frying pan on the stove. Travis put morning juices and nut milks in smaller bottles I could lift. I also live in walking distance to fantastic restaurants and Whole Foods. Instead of using the breathing device given to me by the hospital to expand my lungs (which totally looked like a penis pump), I got into singing karaoke on Apple TV’s “Sing” App. (PS – apparently I have a love for disney songs…Frozen’s “Let it go” and Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” became daily rituals for lung expansion allowing me to toss out the penis pump.)

So yes, there was a lot of self-discovery during recovery and it still continues – I am now 8 weeks out and am feeling pretty darn good. So if you’re ever in pain or finding yourself in a situation when you need to lean on others, here’s my advice to you:

Stop trying to be holy and take the drugs, yo. 

Question your thoughts about pain.

Say YES to help.

Let yourself be a child again.

Notice the blessings and all of things you CAN do.

Get creative.

And this is all still a practice for me too. Let me know what you discover. xoxo

Do you heart this blog? Well it has transformed into a book baby…join my mailing list to get the scoop about its upcoming birth into the world! #mygurucancer