Being My Best Friend

ImageToday was about recovery. What from? A big challenge I undertook yesterday in a team of four amongst a couple of thousand walkers. We participated in Sydney’s Coastrek, an annual 50km (or 100km if you’re really game) walk from Palm Beach to Balmoral Beach. As I’m not completely mad, I chose to do the 50km.

How did this come about? One of my gorgeous, fit, adventurous girlfriends, who had done Coastrek before, asked me mid last year if I’d like to join her team for this year. I saw it as a great challenge as well as opportunity. It gave me a goal to increase my fitness and get my body back to full health.

Image 2We started training in October with 15km walks every second weekend, then increased to 20km, 25km and finally 30km. Through our training we walked the whole route – roads, soft sand beaches, beautiful bush tracks, stairs, steep driveways and footpaths – covering every type of terrain available along Sydney’s magnificent northern beaches coastline. Once I’d done the 30km walk, I knew my body was up to the 50.

My training also included pilates once a week, yoga twice a week, soft sand walking and my usual beautiful brisk morning walks three times a week. I ate as healthily as I could each day and then determined what gave me energy on my training walks – Bird Bars, Protein Balls and Coconut water for rehydration. And, of course, plenty of water.

This was an achievement for me in so many ways. When I started training my energy level was low on hills and my breathing laboured. I’d put on a few unwanted kilos last year and had developed a mild lymphoedema in my left arm. With Sydney starting to get hot, I was concerned I would aggravate the lymphoedema. Instead, with a managed remedial programme with my physiotherapist and regular lymph drainage from my lymphatic masseur, the fluid in my arm started to reduce and they cleared me to walk. My lungs got stronger, such that I didn’t find the hills difficult and the bonus is I have shed 4 kilos in the process. A win all round really.

Fred HollowsAnother part of our challenge was to raise money for the work of The Fred Hollows Foundation which restores sight to people who are needlessly blind in developing countries and aboriginal communities. Our team raised $5,000 which will see 200 children and adults have their sight restored through cataract operations. It is reassuring that our efforts will make a difference too.

During a Sydney summer, one would expect sunshine, a gentle breeze, a little humidity and heat. A shower or two and 23C was predicted yesterday. Instead we got 20C and pouring rain; so out went the sunscreen and on went the raincoats. This presented us with difficult and challenging conditions. Rather than see the beautiful azure waters of the Pacific Ocean and bronzed bodies spread along the sand, we saw rugged grey waves on deserted closed beaches; except for walkers, of course. There was a steady stream of them along the coastline.

Image 4Our final achievement was to complete the walk within our time goal of 12 hours. Through driving rain, with wet shoes, strong winds, along soft sand, down slippery paths, whilst dealing with long toilet queues and track bottlenecks, we did it in 11 hours 53 minutes and 25 seconds without a cross word, supporting each other all the way.

At the end, even with aching joints and sore muscles, we picked up speed and ran through the finish line to the click of cameras and my husband waiting with a bottle of champagne to celebrate. How lucky were we to have him on our support team.

Thank goodness for massage. I had a wonderful remedial massage this morning which saw my muscle and joint pain disappear. Being totally self-indulgent or responsible, take it as you will, I followed it with a lymphatic massage. The best news was my lymph fluid was down. After all that exercise. What a miracle!

I have come a long way in the past 12 months and am probably in the best mental, emotional and physical state of my life. I am strong and well and that is a great gift. During today’s massage it came to me that my body is my best friend. Why? Because I love it and am a true friend to it! That’s what I’m grateful for today.

The risk of Lymphoedema

What about lymphoedema? There are so many opinions about what causes this, who will get it, what you need to watch out for, how you can ensure you don’t get it.

I had my sentinel (lymph) nodes (in the chest wall) removed and then in a separate operation, where 18 lymph nodes were removed. This was the most painful part of the surgical procedure – 5 days in hospital, 15 days with a drain and months of pain, discomfort and tingling nerves. Fortunately the nodes were cancer free.

I didn’t even think about lymphoedema, especially because I was slim, until my surgeon said to me, “it would be good if you went to see Teresa Lee”, a lymphatic physiotherapist. I couldn’t get into see her, but I did see her colleague, Carol Morris.

There was so much I didn’t know and hadn’t thought about. The first thing she said to me is, “how’s your arm movement?” Well it was okay but it was getting stiff and tight and I found I had hard threads, known as “strings”, appearing in my armpit and down the arm where my lymph nodes had been removed. These were the lines of tissue which were part of my lymphatic system and had been attached to my lymph nodes.

Carol immediately went to work on releasing these. She set up a 5-week physiotherapy schedule and gave me some stretching exercises to do every day. I realised I was going to have to be good at ‘creeping up the wall and hanging off the door frame’ in order to get the full movement back into my arm, shoulder and upper back.  I wasn’t even thinking of losing mobility in my arm. Thank goodness I took immediate action and went to see her quickly. Within two months I had full use of my arm, range of movement and had regained the strength in it.

It didn’t finish there. She asked me whether I was having chemotherapy. “Yes”, I answered. “What’s that got to do with lymphoedema?” The fluid in your body can increase when you are on chemotherapy and lymphoedema can start at any time, even in slim women.

So Carol measured my body fluid levels before I started my chemotherapy treatment. What a great move this was. Six months later I discovered that this had risen from 5.6 to over 13, potentially putting me in the risk area for lymphoedema. More treatment would be needed.

In addition to being concerned about the lack of movement and strength in my arm and shoulder and the risk of lymphoedema, I had considerable numbness throughout my breast, down the side of my body between my armpit and breast as well throughout my shoulder and upper arm. I had fibriotic tissue in these areas which was causing the pain and discomfort. This is the area of my body that has taken the longest to heal. I still have numbness and tingling a year later and this may last for a further year or more.

Throughout my treatment and healing I felt I had angels looking over my shoulder and entering my life. One of those was Lisa Higgins, a massage therapist who specialises in manual lymphatic drainage. She works with my osteopath. She had heard I had recently been operated on for early breast cancer. She asked me to have a cup of tea with her and talked to me about how lymphatic drainage massage could assist in my recuperation.

Lymphatic Massage

I booked an appointment and a fantastic journey began. I had bi-weekly lymphatic massage with her. She drained the fluid out of the affected areas, broke up the fibrotic tissue and stimulated my body’s lymphatic system. Not only did this give me comfort, it gave me confidence in my body and healing.

My therapists were also my confidents, my listeners and advocates. I talked about my fears, my concerns, my ideas and how I was going in each session. This empowered me enormously and enabled me to really trust myself and to listen to my intuition.

A few months after I finished chemotherapy and six months after surgery, during the hotter months of summer, I started to get swelling in my hand and arm, particularly after exercising. This scared me. I rang Lisa, bound my hand and arm and went back to see Carol, the physiotherapist, as soon as possible. A compression sleeve then gauntlet were prescribed to be worn 8 hours a day, especially during and after exercise. I did this religiously and began to reduce the fluid in my arm and hand.

Twelve months after surgery, I stopped wearing the sleeve, except when flying, and got a fluid reading of 5.3. Back to normal!

I gently massage myself when I have pain and am easing back on my treatments. I still have to monitor myself. Lymphoedema could still start at any time.