By Gina Wise, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
Who knew Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) would feel so good! It's like abracadabra with a sturdy chair, a lit candle, and a very skilled guru to fix you up and get you on your way again.
I am writing this article to bring awareness to a surgical procedure known as axillary node dissection. On November 18,2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew I needed surgery but had no idea what was going to happen to me. Mastectomy? Lumpectomy? I was told I could choose between these two surgeries. But what I didn’t know about was axillary node dissection. What is it? What are the reasons for it? What are the lifelong complications that accompany this procedure? I had a lot to learn. Good thing I had a lot of help on the road to discovery, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer. This is only a small part of the story of my journey with breast cancer. I am still on this journey. I am now undergoing radiation therapy. But that is another part of my story.
On January 6, 2017, my axillary node dissection was done in conjunction with a lumpectomy of my left breast. Axillary node dissection involves mapping out the most likely affected lymphatic nodes adjacent to my breast cancer and the lymphatic chain leading away from it. It is the most likely part of my body that the cancer would spread to. This is known as sentinel lymph node mapping and involves the use of nuclear medicine and blue dye, which involved a big needle to inject blue radioactive fluid in my ARIOLA! I found this to be a scary and painful experience. Once this part of my lymphatic system had been “lit up,” my surgeon used a gamma detection scan to determine the best site for my underarm incision and which axillary lymph nodes, now blue, to remove. These nodes were sent out along with the cancer tumor, the margin surrounding the cancer, and a section of my breast skin to a pathology lab to test for cancer. This sounds very simple, but I can assure you that it was not! However, the results of this pathology outweigh the postoperative pain, impaired mobility, and now, a lifelong “mindfulness” of my left arm.
Axillary node dissection results in a permanent impairment of the lymphatic system and the immune system of the surgery arm. The circulation in my left arm of good, clean lymphatic fluid “in,” and bad bacteria, virus, and waste-filled fluid “out,” is now impaired. My immune system now has fewer nodes and therefore fewer lymphocytes, infection-fighting cells. I am now at a greater risk of developing lymphedema and have a greater risk of infection from something as simple as a small cut, burn, insect bite, or sunburn. On the day, my nurse navigator said “It's cancer,” she also gave me my “Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook,” written by Judy Kneece. This book is as big as an old phone book and has been a valuable source of information. It has pages and pages listing risks, precautions, and lifelong care of my surgical arm. I've read it many times and have integrated this new “piece of myself” into my holistic lifestyle. I am now a cancer survivor. So, this is the story of my left arm and how Adaptive Yoga with Keri Knutson at Womanspace was my way station to discovery, treatment and recovery.
After my axillary node dissection, my left chest and left arm were in a lot of pain. My left arm was very stiff and hard to move. The incision and removal of the lymph nodes disrupted every other biological system in my arm and chest. Including my nervous system. After my surgery, my left arm was in constant pain and I was experiencing a strange numbness with sharp tingles in my arm. My arm felt like it was “asleep” all the time, and just the activity of my day caused pain across my chest and down my arm. One of the complications after my surgeries included a seroma, a buildup of fluid, in my armpit. The treatment for the seroma included extra doctor visits, another ultrasound, and icing my armpit every night. I iced my breast and armpit every night for 24 nights, right up to the day I started radiation. My seroma is now gone.
One week after my surgeries, I had healed enough to start my lifelong aftercare of my surgical arm. My “Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook” included a series of daily exercises and stretches to regain strength and mobility in my arm. This regimen is important in a two-folded way: first, to counterbalance my lifelong risk of lymphedema by supporting my lymphatic system, and second, to help regain strength and full mobility of my arm. This is where Keri Knutson and Adaptive Yoga at Womanspace entered my new life path.
Keri is a true guru! Her knowledge of Integral Yoga and practice gave me the much-needed guidance to safely begin my daily series of exercises and stretches. Keri's special brand of adaptive chair yoga and her intuitive knowledge of holistic healing helped to restore my mind, body, and spirit. The use of a chair, yoga strap, and Keri's mindful eye gave me the correct physical support and posture to safely perform the seated yoga poses to help open my chest, shoulders, and arms. Practicing a supported downward facing dog and cow face pose would come to be very important in my journey with breast cancer. I gave myself time to heal and slowly added more daily exercise to my Adaptive Yoga practice. Womanspace and my newfound friends and fellow Adaptive Yogis gave me hope and courage to heal and restore my body. For me, Adaptive Yoga with Keri was a true way station. For the next four weeks, I was able to regain my strength, health, and full mobility of my left arm. I have since moved on to Keri's Restorative Yoga class. Not only did my time and experience in Adaptive Yoga restore my health and mobility, but it also gave me the ability to move to the next important step in my journey with breast cancer, six weeks of radiation treatment. During my radiation treatment, I need to lie on my back, hold both of my arms up behind my head in a modified cow face pose, hold my breath, and not move AT ALL while different x-rays of the chest are taken and then, again, for each different body angle for the radiation treatment. My ability to remain absolutely still helps minimize the radiation scatter to my ribs, lungs, and heart. I am able to do ALL I need to do to continue my journey with breast cancer. I continue to live a holistic lifestyle with good food and exercise. I am mindful of my energy level and resting well. I continue the practice of mindfulness with Elaine Hirschenberger in the Mindfulness Group, Meditation as a Wellness Practice with Dr. Shiraz Tata, Reiki One with Debby Gaines, and Restorative Yoga with Keri Knutson. Thank you.
I am very grateful to Keri and all the women in the yoga classes at Womanspace. My time in Adaptive Yoga was very healing, both mentally and physically. My time being in fellowship and laughing with the other women helped heal my spirits. This is the story of my left arm. Who knew that Adho Mukha Svanasana would feel so good! No matter how you adapt it!