As breast cancer awareness month winds down, medical experts remind us that the breast cancer journey doesn’t always end once a patient is in remission. While side effects from treatment can sometimes last a lifetime, there’s now a special team at Guthrie dedicated to managing symptoms.
Nancy Lattimer a Guthrie breast cancer patient says, “know that you can do so much to go and help yourself.”
That’s the message 71-year-old Nancy Lattimer wants to share after she missed her yearly mammogram and found a lump one year later.
“I did not do self-exam at all, maybe twice a year which isn’t right but I didn’t and I just wish other people would realize it only takes a few minutes,” Lattimer explains.
Lattimer was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Doctors removed all of her lymph nodes on the side her cancer was found to keep it from spreading.
After I had my surgery, two weeks later my hands swelled up to double its size,” Lattimer said.
Just when Lattimer thought she was nearing the end of her cancer journey, she was diagnosed with lymphedema, a side effect that many women face after breast cancer treatment. The condition is caused when fluid cannot properly drain from the tissue due to scarring.
“When the lymph nodes are removed from under the arm or radiated, there can be an injury to those lymph nodes or lymph channels and scarring, and some of the same pathways that fluid drains from the breast, it drains from the arm,” explained Dr. Firdos Ziauddin, a breast surgical oncologist at Guthrie. “So those tissues can swell and if they remain chronically swollen, the tissue can become scared and it’s hard to treat.”
Guthrie’s team of 10 certified lymphedema therapists work with breast cancer patients both before and after treatment to help reduce the risk of developing the condition. They say recognizing the symptoms is key.
Melissa Fox, a certified lymphedema therapist at Guthrie says “The early signs of lymphedema can be a heaviness feeling in the arm or leg, it can be a little bit of an achiness or a pain. Often times what happens is after an increase in activity, their hand or arm swells and they are unable to get the swelling to go down.”
Certified physical therapists are also working with breast cancer patients before, during, and after treatment to help maintain strength for a quicker recovery.
Emalyn Setzer a certified physical therapist at Guthrie says “by exercising and staying active, it helps you feel like yourself a little bit, as you’re going through the battle.”
Personalized exercise plans are tailored to each individual patient. This means a more targeted approach to helping ward off the symptoms of lymphedema and other conditions related to breast cancer treatment.
“Every surgery and every patient is different so by coming to see a physical or occupational therapist, we can help to tailor the program to exactly what you need keeping in mind what surgery you had, what tissues were involved and what lymph nodes were removed so we’ll make sure that you’re exercising in a safe manner,” Setzer says.
And while lymphedema can be a life-long condition, therapists at Guthrie want patients to know there’s a whole team of people that can help them through it.
“The great thing about being a lymphedema therapist is that I get the opportunity to show them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we can reduce the size of their limb, they can live a healthy lifestyle and do all the things that they want to do despite the condition,” said Lattimer.
That type of support making Lattimer’s cancer journey a little easier.
“Every step of the way, I really honestly believe that I’ve had the right person all along, I have not regretted anything,” said Lattimer.