When she met us at the door, the first thing I noticed was her hair. It was halfway down her back, brown and curly the last time I’d seen her. Now it was a short cap with streaks of grey showing. “It’s growing back,” she laughed, running her fingers through it.
This was her third time through chemo for reoccurring breast cancer and the elephant in the room was that we all knew she wouldn’t be coming back this time. The cancer had spread and this visit was more or less a chance to say goodbye while she was still able to receive visitors.
She was packing a picnic lunch, with the help of her husband, for an outdoor concert we planned to attend that night. It was difficult for her, as her right arm was swollen at least twice its size and wrapped in numerous Ace bandages. “I have lymphedema,” she explained. “We’re using the bandages to force some of the liquid into the lymph nodes I still have left.” “Is it painful?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “I can’t sleep, I can’t use this arm, and it’s just one more misery on top of everything else.”
Like many women, when the lump had been discovered, her lymph nodes had been removed from under her arm as a precaution. Now a new report shows that 40,000 women a year in the United States, ones that meet certain criteria, will not benefit from having their lymph nodes removed. If a woman has had chemo and radiation, as did my friend, it would have killed anything residing in the lymph nodes, making it unnecessary to remove them.
Her doctors were playing it safe with the known facts at that time. But it’s a shame that her final 12 months had to be marked with the pain and uncomfortableness of lymphedema when it very possibly could have been avoided.
I wish we’d known then what we know now.