5 Things I Learned from A Naturopath

5 Things I Learned from A Naturopath

It’s no secret that I am freakishly in-tune with my body and that I also value knowing exactly what’s happening behind the scenes of my symptoms. Even before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew something was off with my body, and I’d started to research root causes and naturopathic/functional medicine approaches to help me with some things I’d been experiencing. Then, cancer came into my life and between the 85 million appointments (not exaggerating…), I decided to hold off on seeing yet another practitioner.

Now that I’m approaching the end of active cancer treatment, I decided it’s time to get some additional support and testing done. A few things I was concerned about include the health of my digestive system, support for my thyroid, and restoring equilibrium for my female hormones. I chose to see a naturopath (ND) based on recommendations from friends and based on her experience level and social media content (never underestimate the power of social media!). Here’s a few things I’ve learned after my initial consultation and lab work:

Get that Good Gut Health

Chemo is designed to destroy cancer cells which are typically rapidly dividing and multiplying in our bodies. Well – guess what else rapidly divides and multiplies? Healthy cells in our digestive tracts! Side effects from chemotherapy tend to hit the GI tract hard and can include mouth sores, nausea/vomiting, heartburn, and diarrhea or constipation. Seeing as I had several of these symptoms during my 16 rounds of chemo, I knew my gut was going to need support and healing.

First of all, the GI tract is full of trillions of happy, healthy bacteria typically referred to as the gut microbiome. These bacteria help us to digest food and maintain a strong immune system. It’s all a bit complex honestly, but a lack in diversity of these bacteria can lead to a whole host of health issues, including mental health concerns.

My ND recommended a few important things to get me started: a good probiotic to promote microbiome diversity and a drink called GI Revive which supports the intestinal lining and promotes regularity. It’s also crucial to eat a diverse, supportive diet that includes plenty of fiber, vegetables and whole grains, and fermented foods.
*Side note – if I’d known GI Revive existed, I would have started it during chemotherapy. However at that time, I did use L-glutamine supplements which helped me prevent issues in my mouth and lower GI tract.

Altogether, I feel like things are coming back around to normal after chemotherapy with this added support. I imagine that the more my gut heals, the more I’ll see my immune system improve and I’ll be able to maintain low levels of inflammation in my body.

Clarity on Chemopause

I started chemo on June 9, 2020, and that was also the first day I received a Zoladex injection. Zoladex is a hormonal therapy designed to stop the ovaries from creating follicles which release estrogen. The ovaries have a high rate of cell turnover like the GI tract, so chemotherapy can lead to infertility if not protected by hormonal therapy. Modern medicine is truly incredible, and I’m grateful that as a 30-year-old woman going through chemo, I had the option to try to save my fertility in this way.

Joke’s on me though, because after 6 months of this hormonal therapy, I am officially in chemopause (a medically-induced menopause), and I have all the symptoms to show for it. I specifically asked my ND for post-chemo baseline labs for my estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels. No surprise here, but my labs confirm I’m in a menopausal state and that explains the hot flashes, joint pain, dyspareunia (learn more here), and amenorrhea…

Now, true menopause means a woman has had no menstrual cycle for >12 months. Being only two months out from my last Zoladex injection, I’d say there’s still hope for my ovaries to bounce back. Most women who’ve been on this type of treatment have seen their menstrual cycles return after 5-6 months on average. In the meantime, I need to be supportive of my body! I attempt to exercise 3-5 times per week (walking, resistance training, and stretching) to relieve joint pain and both my ND and OB/GYN have recommended vaginal moisturizers to prevent vaginal atrophy until my estrogen levels improve. (If this is TMI for my family & friends reading this – sorry, but it’s just #RealTalk!)

I’ll continue to monitor my labs every few months to be sure things are trending in the right direction. Chemopause isn’t necessarily permanent, so here’s hoping my body can pull through!

The Thyroid Needs to Thrive

About seven years ago, while I was deep in PT school, I began having unnatural fatigue. I ended up being diagnosed with an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). The thyroid gland produces hormones which help regulate our metabolism, and if the thyroid isn’t functioning optimally, you can have symptoms like fatigue, dry skin, hair loss, weight gain, constipation, or feeling like you’re always cold. Every body system relies on the thyroid so it’s a priority to take care of it!

Trying to find the root cause of my thyroid dysfunction has always been something I was curious about before my cancer diagnosis, and after treatment I wanted to know if there was: a) any additional support needed for my thyroid after chemo, and b) if there was an underlying cause for my hypothyroidism. After running a full thyroid panel, my ND diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition in which my own immune system is attacking my thyroid. She educated me that Hashimoto’s is actually the most common cause of hypothyroidism and affects about 5 in 100 people.1 It seems that Hashimoto’s is a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors such as food sensitivities or heavy metals toxicity.

My next step is to try to determine what may have triggered this autoimmune condition. The more I know about my condition, the better I can treat it or avoid any sensitivities that may make my condition worse. It might seem like I am seeking out more health problems, but my intent is really to understand my own body and how I can best support it to remain healthy and cancer-free. I will likely always have to be on thyroid medication, but I’d like to try to prevent the condition from progressing as much as I can (I plan on living a long life, you know?!).

Sometimes You Just Have to Supplement

In all honesty, I’ve never been a fan of supplements because I just can’t remember to take them every day! I now understand, however, that there are certain vitamins and minerals that I’m unable to get enough of through a vegan/vegetarian diet (like vitamin B12 which is only found in animal products), and also, based on my recent lab work, we found that some others (like my vitamin D and zinc levels) were significantly depleted for me during chemotherapy.

There are certain supplements I need to be cautious taking during radiation therapy as high levels of antioxidants (like those in vitamins A, C, and E) can interfere with the treatment itself. For now, I am supplementing with:

  • B vitamin complex to improve my energy levels and cognitive functioning
  • Vitamin D3 which promotes bone health and has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer metastasis
  • Omega-3 which helps to reduce inflammation and supports brain and heart function
  • Zinc which supports the immune system
  • A probiotic and the GI drink I mentioned earlier for gut health

It sounds like a lot, but I’m currently finding it very worthwhile. Some of the brain fog that started during chemo has lifted since I started supplementing more regularly, my GI system is more settled, and my hair is growing back much faster than I anticipated! Maybe eventually I won’t need so much supplementation, but I feel now is the time to be very supportive of my body and it’s healing.

The Cost of Collaborative Care is: Priceless.

I know what you’re all thinking – this all sounds expensive! And it is to some extent. Supplements can be pricey & aren’t covered by insurance like most pharmaceuticals. When providers don’t contract with insurance companies, the costs can add up. I don’t need to explain myself, but I just want to let you all in on my thought process at this point.

Seeing an ND and using supplements and acupuncture to support my healing have brought me immense benefits and peace of mind both before and after my cancer diagnosis. I personally feel that seeing a fee-for-service provider is excellent because they are not held to unreasonable standards that insurance companies often dictate. These providers can spend more 1:1 time with their patients, can recommend tests and treatments that can be run through insurance companies, and can provide a more holistic approach to your care. I personally feel it worth every penny to have this kind of care.

If you don’t have your health, you have nothing. This year my body has been through the ringer and besides feeling physically unwell, I saw my mental health and my relationships challenged. I was hardly able to concentrate on anything besides getting through treatment and managing my symptoms. My husband became a “caregiver” and most of our life revolved around what I could and couldn’t do with friends during a pandemic when you’re immunocompromised. I haven’t been able to treat patients for almost a year and so my sense of purpose got a little muddy at times.

Now is the time for me to heal from all of that. I am beyond grateful for good health insurance that got me through treatment without any debt, family and friends who contributed to my GoFundMe so I can seek out alternative care options as I continue to heal, and for my super-supportive coworkers who’ve donated time off and kept me in the loop at work so I don’t feel like a complete outsider. These things may seem small, but they can mean the world to someone living with a complex illness.

Again, my purpose here is to share my journey in case someone else going through this can benefit from what I’ve learned. Much of this info is very personal, and I choose to be open about this. I’ve said this before, but just because someone is considered “cancer-free” doesn’t mean they’re not still experiencing some of the long-term effects of treatment. We use fire to fight fires in cancer care and there are often side effects of side effects!

Please be kind! If you know someone in treatment (or if you know someone who may just need a little extra help), reach out today and see how you can support them – we’ve all got to have each other’s backs.

Aloha ❤

*This post is not intended to provide medical advice or recommendations. I am simply stating what has worked or been recommended to me on my personal journey. For more information, read my full disclaimer here.

Radiation & Reflections

Radiation & Reflections

It feels like it’s been a bit since I gave an update so here we go! I had my radiation simulation on January 5 which is basically a practice run for the actual radiation treatment. The radiation oncologist and radiation technicians set up the treatment table and placed stickers on my chest to help them line up the radiation beams during treatment. I was able to practice with the deep inspiration breath hold (DIBH) technique which is meant to draw the heart away from the chest wall as I inhale to minimize radiation exposure to the heart for people with left-sided breast cancer. It’s actually very fun – like a video game! They give you goggles, and as you inhale a bar rises up into a green box. The goal is to keep the bar in the middle of the box for about 30-45 seconds during treatment.

I started the actual treatment on Thursday, and it has gone well so far. The first session took about 45 minutes for the alignment and set up to be confirmed. The second treatment was much quicker (about 15 minutes) as the correct table settings were already known, and I just had to lie down and get treatment. The treatment uses 2 beams (one goes right to left across my left breast, and one goes from back to front in my left armpit), done separately, so that the whole breast receives treatment and no rogue cancer cells are left behind. I use the DIBH with each blast of radiation to protect my heart. The plan for me is to go daily (Monday through Friday) for 20 sessions (16 whole breast radiation, 4 boost to the tumor bed itself).

Learning about the process of radiation therapy has been fascinating to me! There is so much complexity and nuance from the set up, dosing, and treatment delivery. I have a lot respect for my providers and feel that I am in very good hands. How incredible is it to have these kind of treatments that are literally life-saving for so many people?!

As with any treatment, there are risks. The radiation can affect the heart and/or lungs which could cause some tissue fibrosis and the physicians/technicians do all they can to minimize this during their planning so there are no long-term effects on those vital organs. Skin irritation/breakdown is also a consideration so I am on a very strict moisturizing schedule using MyGirls Radiation Burn Cream every 3-4 hours and Aquaphor (with or without pure aloe vera mixed in) nightly. I can expect to see discoloration of my skin (tanning or redness) as treatment progresses. Other side effects can include fatigue and/or swelling of the treatment area.

Some other ways that I am supporting my body throughout radiation is to drink green tea 1 hour prior to each treatment. EGCG, which is a compound in relatively high concentration in green tea, has been shown to reduce damage to the body’s healthy cells during radiation. I am also continuing supplementation of vitamin D, a vitamin B complex, fish oils, and a few others that my physician ok’d.
**Disclaimer: Always check with your doctor about any medications or supplements you’re taking during cancer treatments as some supplements can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy or radiation.

Otherwise, I was able to start part-time work again on transitional duty. My department has some old paperwork that needs to be scanned into our electronic medical records system, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have an option to work outside of patient care as I finish treatment. I am trying to be very mindful about balancing my return to work with taking care of myself. The old me would have jumped in head first, but I feel a deep need to let me body guide my choices these days and it’s telling me to take it slow.

Justin & I are in the process of selling our condo and buying a new place! It seems like the right time for a change in scenery and a fresh start for us. Wish us luck in this process! When COVID settles, we’ll be taking applications for visitors…

I’ve also been reflecting a lot about getting cancer as a 30-year-old, “healthy” person, and I have two points to make about this right now. For one, I am a big believer in root cause medicine. I may never know 100% why I got breast cancer without any genetic factors or significant family history. However, I am working with a naturopath to determine if there is an underlying factor that heightened my risk for cancer in the first place. My ND is testing me for things like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an autoimmune thyroid condition…I have a history of hypothyroidism and a family history of Hashimoto’s), celiac’s disease/gluten sensitivity, heavy metals toxicity, and food allergies/sensitivities. This will likely be a long process of exploration, but I’ll try to update as I know more. I am a big proponent of integrative medicine and I will always strive to incorporate both natural and conventional principles into my care. I believe strongly that there is an important place for both in cancer care and recovery.

Secondly, I have been looking at cancer not as a detour in my life, but as a brand new path I’m setting out on. I realized that I feel this pressure to “get back on track,” but I prefer to see it as carving a new path for my life. It’s a scary feeling to know that I am not on the same “timeline” that I envisioned for my life before cancer, and yet I feel a sense of freedom knowing there is unlimited potential in this redirection. I am trusting God that this is the true path I was meant to tread, and that this is not the first or the last time I’ll be redirected to serve His purpose for me. I choose humility and I release control of my journey.

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend. I’m going to take some time off social media and get a bit more introspective for a bit so I’ll catch ya on the flip side!

Aloha ❤

Stronger than Cancer

Stronger than Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute, as of January 2019, the United States had 16.9 million cancer survivors and estimates that number will increase to 22.2 million by the year 2030.1 Although I’m still technically in active treatment until I complete radiation therapy, I’m now considered NED (no evidence of disease) a.k.a. “cancer free,” a survivor. While it would seem that being a survivor is just one big party, I’ve found myself seeing from a perspective that people who haven’t gone through cancer may not consider. Today, I have a few thoughts on survivorship that I wanted to share – it’s a long one, but an important one so get comfy…

Survivor or Thriver?

In the true sense of the word, a survivor is someone who’s overcome hardship or who copes well with the challenges they’ve been given. For some of us who’ve lived or are living through cancer, surviving doesn’t quite describe what it’s like to take on a complex illness and somehow maintain a semi-normal life. That’s why many in the cancer community now prefer the term “thriver” because they choose to continue to not only survive, but thrive through and beyond a cancer diagnosis. It’s not about getting through it without complications, but rather just living as normally as possible during treatment. Being a thriver means rolling with the punches, accepting what you have to do to get through it all, and getting to live how you want despite your diagnosis.

Being a thriver takes on a whole new meaning, though, for someone with metastatic/stage IV cancer. As of now, there’s no true cure for Stage IV cancer and treatment continues until the cancer doesn’t respond anymore. However, many people live for years on palliative treatment since research and treatments continue to advance all the time (#StageIVNeedsMore). In the meantime, there is always normal life running parallel to someone’s diagnosis. The world doesn’t just stop turning. I bring this up only to remind you that everyone’s diagnosis is different – not everyone can be cured, and it seems unfair to put “surviving” on a pedestal when, honestly, what it takes to thrive after a cancer diagnosis is so much more honorable.

If you’re interested in donating to support Stage IV breast cancer reseach, click here.

Mental Health after Cancer

Despite much stigma around mental illness in the past, I think the narrative about mental health issues is gradually (thankfully) starting to change. Many of us experience some degree of mental health concerns throughout our lifetime, but there are a few specific things that someone with cancer may go through after diagnosis and especially in the years after someone may be considered NED.

Scanxiety is the term used by cancer thrivers to convey anxiety around pending imaging (mammogram, CT/PET scans, etc.) or about the results of them. Imaging is the first stop on the cancer diagnosis train and so repeating this process every six months to a year can bring up a lot of emotions, even if it’s expected the scan results will all be normal. It’s important to recognize these feelings are normal and expected (especially in those first 5 years after diagnosis when the likelihood of recurrence is highest), and this would be a good time to throw your toxic positivity out the window. Here are a few ways to be there for someone preparing for follow up scans:

Don’t say….

“Everything will be fine…”

“You have nothing to worry about…”

“It’s just an MRI/CT/mammogram…”

“Stay positive – negative thoughts only lead to disease…”

Instead try….

“I know you’re worried about your tests/results, do you want to talk about it?”

“It’s ok to feel [insert emotion here] after all you’ve been through.”

“Do you want to go for a walk/coffee/other activity to take your mind off all of this for a bit?”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, another anxiety condition, is widely publicized as something that combat veterans get after serving in war. Fun fact – anyone who has been through any kind of trauma can get PTSD. After being diagnosed with cancer, there are so many things that can trigger anxiety and panic attacks. A few of my triggers include hearing of someone young who died of cancer, upcoming medical appointments (particularly with new doctors or doctors that don’t know my recent medical history), and especially blood draws, but other events or news may trigger someone differently. Please be kind and allow space for others to feel their stress and anxiety.

Another thing I’d like to address is actually the first thing I experienced after surgery confirmed I was NED. Survivor’s guilt. I was surprised that I felt this since I was very confident in my doctors and myself that I would get through this (I guess when you’re doctor writes on your FMLA paperwork that your cancer is “curable” it leaves you mostly hopeful). But this “guilt” hit me hard and unexpectedly and so I’ve taken some time to sit with it and understand it.

Truthfully, I don’t actually feel guilty that I survived cancer. I know many other survivors and have met many amazing women this year who’ve overcome a breast cancer hurdle, and they never talk about feeling guilty to be alive either. So I came to the realization that what I’m feeling is actually empathy for those still in treatment and compassion for those who will always be in treatment or for whom treatment didn’t work. Being a survivor is a strange position to be in, but I’m hoping that my experience will only make me a better friend and clinician when I have the opportunity to support someone going through a similar experience.

Expectation of Transformation

The one last thing that’s been on my mind is this idea that because I’ve survived cancer, I must be a changed person. Cancer is eye-opening in many ways, that’s true, but it’s not like Cinderella putting on that glass slipper. I don’t suddenly have this new lease on life, and I don’t feel newly inspired to pick up the torch and run wildly toward some new life where every experience is profoundly meaningful and joyous. That’s great if someone else does have a big transformation, but for me (and likely many others) it’s just not the case. Instead, I feel a bit more reserved. I want to live a simple, mostly happy (sometimes messy) life focused on loving the people I surround myself with and learning as much as I can with whatever time I have left here on this Earth.

I don’t strive to be an inspiration and I hope everyone can recognize that a diagnosis isn’t a definition. I had cancer. I am not defined by that or limited to that. I share my experience because I hope it can help someone else who’s going through it. While I’ve learned a lot, I’m not going to dwell on the experience. Instead, I’ll take what I’ve learned and get back to my life, applying that new knowledge whenever I get the chance. I hope you’ll all hold me accountable to that.

Aloha ❤

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Well, we did it. We made it through 2020, a year no one could have ever expected. A year that we were all “safer at home” and “socially distanced.” A year in which we all struggled as a collective against a common enemy and were challenged on a personal level as well.

It’s easy to look back on this as a very difficult year, but for me it was also a year of major growth, learning, and finding love. Love for myself, my partner, my family and friends, and even for strangers. A year to prioritize my health, both physically and mentally. A year to allow many tears and also to find joy in the most ordinary of days.

I’m actually unable to hold back tears thinking of all we went through this year with such little reprieve. To go through cancer on top of it all was just ridiculous, honestly. So, I am grateful to sit here and reflect on the highs and lows of 2020. I am even more grateful to be able to look ahead to the ordinary joys, the eventual hugs, and the lessons that 2021 will bring.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but on my 30th birthday last year, I kept feeling that 2020 would be a big year. Not like the “best year ever” kind of year, but the kind where you’re challenged in all the important ways. I usually decide on a word that symbolizes my intentions for the year, and I just couldn’t pick one last year, but as the second quarter of the year began with COVID and a cancer diagnosis, I found myself always coming back to a Japanese phrase I learned a few years ago:

And so that’s what I’ve done this year. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and doing the best I could to get through each day. Trust me, some days were better than others and there were many days that I had to ask for help. So to those of you who prayed for me, who let me cry with you on the phone, who laughed with me on zoom calls, who sent cards and letters, who wore masks & socially distanced to protect the immunocompromised – I am incredibly thankful for you.

A few highlights from this year:
Getting to spend a whole month with my mom in Hawaii. Staycations. Cooking at home and learning new recipes. Being outside more often. Meeting new people (mainly my excellent medical team and an incredible group of cancer thrivers). Growing closer to my husband as we rounded out our second year of marriage and head into our third. Working on my Pilates certification. New babies. Friends getting married. Learning my own strength.

I won’t dwell on the lows, but I will remember how much I learned from them. This year my word is JOY. I hope to find more joy in each day, be more present, and celebrate every little victory. There will be setbacks, I’m sure of it, but if I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that they can be overcome. Wishing you all a happy, healthy, safe new year and sending you so much love and gratitude.

Cheers to 2021! ❤

A Fertility Update

A Fertility Update

How it’s going…

You may remember me posting a while back about the different ways I tried to protect my fertility as I prepared to start chemotherapy. First, I froze some eggs. In case I’m unable to conceive naturally later, I can use them for IVF. I also started monthly Zoladex injections – a medication that halts ovarian function in an attempt to preserve fertility overall.

And so, at age 31, I’ve been in a Zoladex-induced menopause since June. Six whole months later, my estrogen levels have tanked and my joints ache like I’m an 100-year-old lady! Some other fun side effects include amenorrhea (lack of a period), hot flashes, and dyspareunia. So, I’m currently staying as active as possible (mostly walking and stretching when I have the energy) in order to mitigate some of those side effects, and thankfully, my oncologist and I decided it was time to discontinue the Zoladex now that the bulk of treatment is behind me. Today marks one month since my last injection!

For more detailed info about fertility preservation, you can read my earlier post here.

What to expect now?

Typically, the menstrual cycle can take a few months to return as the body figures out its new normal once again. As I have some previous experience with amenorrhea after I came off the birth control pill in 2019, I know that what I eat will play a huge role in how quickly my body gets back to normal. Thus, the plant-based diet continues (plus no dairy, processed sugars, or alcohol) and I will try my absolute hardest to cut back on caffeine to keep my nervous system calm.

I also plan to use seed cycling to help my body regulate the essential hormones it needs for menstruation and ovulation. This is a great article about how to do seed cycling if you’re interested in learning more. Seed cycling is an excellent, natural way to balance hormones, however if you have hormone-positive cancer, please ask your doctor if a daily dose of phytoestrogens is safe for you!

Once I’ve completed radiation therapy, I’ll speak with my medical oncologist and OB/GYN about when it will be safe to start trying to conceive. With that said, I think my body deserves a long break to heal completely before that all happens. Actually, this might be a good time to kindly remind you that it’s just not acceptable to ask a person when they plan to have children. A person’s body is their own to make decisions for and, sometimes, people aren’t capable or willing to have children at all.

My goal for this blog has always been to be as open and honest about my experiences as possible in the hopes that whoever may be reading this can gain some insight for their own health and wellness. Personally, I don’t think there’s ever TMI (too much information) disclosed when it comes to learning about your own body and how it works. This coming from a pelvic floor PT who talks about poop all day… Anyway, I’d love to know what questions you have about:

  • fertility preservation during cancer treatments
  • long-term side effects of the birth control pill
  • nutrition around hormone balance
  • seed cycling

Drop your Q’s in the comments below!

Hopeful Updates and a Quick PSA!

Hopeful Updates and a Quick PSA!

Well, about 10 days have passed since my last chemo (still celebrating!), and I thought I’d update everyone on the emotional roller coaster that was the last week. It’s been surprisingly eventful!

I took the past week off to get a few appointments and scans done. I forgot to update on this, but on my last day of chemo last week, my manager at work notified me that we’ll be closing our COVID negative results call center at the end of this week (Nov. 7). It’s not lost on me how lucky I was to be able to have work through this pandemic, especially a safe job that I was able to do from home. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that chemo and that job will be ending at the same time. Time to start thinking about going back to some patient care (eventually)!

On Wednesday, I repeated my mammogram and ultrasound. Mammo was quick & easy but the tech was running behind so didn’t say much about anything she might’ve seen on the images. I’m able to see the ultrasound, however, and it was clear that there continues to be a small mass (6mm – about 1/3 the size of my original tumor) still remaining in my left breast. The poor ultrasound tech probably felt weird with me reading over her shoulder because she called in the radiologist who reminded me that the MRI would give more information. Because the MRI is done with contrast dye, any cancer cells will light up on the image. If no “lights,” then the mass may just be scar tissue.

Thursday morning, I had my MRI, and then in the afternoon I went in to my oncologist’s office for (hopefully) my last Zoladex injection (#SaveTheOvaries). I ran into my oncology APRN there and he printed the impression from my mammo & ultrasound for me and just casually mentioned, “The MRI showed nothing.” I won’t really believe it until I see the words on paper, and don’t worry I’ve been obsessively opening MyChart to see if the results are online. Not yet. Still, not yet. But I’m currently taking his word for it just so I can sleep at night.

Quick PSA: If you have “dense” or “very dense” breasts, a mammogram can be less accurate at detecting tumors or calcifications in the breast. You should talk with your doctor about what other imaging can be done to be sure nothing is ever missed!
I’m going to post pictures below of my mammogram and ultrasound impressions to give you an example.

Otherwise, yesterday was Halloween, and I couldn’t miss a chance to dress up again! (Last year we landed in Japan at midnight on Halloween, and I wasn’t packing a costume with me.) Last night, Justin & I were able to get together for a socially distant dinner with his sister and her boyfriend which was so fun and I’m looking forward to getting to see more friends and family now that I won’t be so immunocompromised. We also got to make a quick pit stop at our friends’ place to see their new baby so all is right in the world ❤

And, as today is November 1, we are celebrating el Dia de los Muertos and reminding you to #FeelItOnTheFirst!! The first of the month is the perfect time for you do your monthly breast/chest self-exam!

Check yoself!

Due to COVID, breast cancer diagnoses are down by 51.8% — NOT because less people are getting cancer, but because they aren’t going in for their appointments! DO NOT DELAY your mammograms and OB/GYN appointments – your doctors and clinics are doing everything they can to keep you safe during this time. It could save your life!
*Remember: Men can get breast cancer, too, so encourage the men in your life to do their screenings!

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month coming to a close, please remember that breast cancer research does not stop needing support at the end of October and cancer survivors do no stop needing support once they’re “cured.” The fear of recurrence and survivorship in general evoke just as many emotions as the diagnosis and treatment. Treat everyone with a little grace and consider donating to cancer research if you have the means. I outlined some great breast cancer organizations in my previous post.

In case you’re following my Instagram page (@bri.d.pt), my sister-in-law Marisa & I had a great conversation about the inevitable thoughts of death/dying after receiving a cancer diagnosis or terminal illness. Check it out! If you’re interested in an intuitive angel card reading with Marisa, you can book one here!

I hope you all have a great week! Please stay healthy and safe, wear your masks, and wash your hands! Going into the holiday season, we want to be able to spend time with family and friends so the safer, the better!

Aloha ❤

Transgender Health & Breast Cancer

Transgender Health & Breast Cancer

As research builds for our transgender community, cancer screenings and preventative health must be encouraged. As hormonal therapy and surgery are often part of transitioning, trans people should be aware of their risk of developing certain cancers including breast cancer, reproductive cancers, or prostate cancer dependent on their individual treatment.

Risk of Breast Cancer in Trans Women

According to a Dutch study from 2019, for a trans female on hormonal therapy, the risk of developing breast cancer is slightly higher than in the cisgender male population, but still lower than the general cisgender female population.1 Just as hormonal replacement therapy has been shown to increase breast cancer risk in a post-menopausal cisgender female population, so it is for trans women.

Another Dutch study from 2013 noted that 60% of trans women whose records were reviewed in the study had dense or very dense breasts which is known to limit effectiveness of mammogram studies and puts someone at increased individual risk for breast cancer in all populations.2

Those with BRCA1/BRCA2 genetic mutations likely also have an increased risk of breast cancer, although more research is needed specifically for the transgender population. If someone has a BRCA mutation or significant family history of breast cancer, they should discuss screening options with their healthcare providers.

Risk of Breast Cancer in Trans Men

For trans men on hormonal therapy, the risk of developing breast cancer is lower than in the cisgender female population. Trans men also may choose to have top surgery which could include a breast reduction or removal of the breasts (bilateral mastectomy). The risk of developing breast cancer after mastectomy in this population is unknown at this time.1,3

Breast Cancer Screenings for the Trans Population

In the United States, some studies show that transgender people are less adherent to mammogram screening guidelines than cisgender people (often due to stigma or limited access to healthcare).4 However, it is important for these screenings to take place regularly as early detection of breast cancer can save lives.

Current guidelines for trans women who are age 50 or older and have been on hormonal therapy >5 years, a mammogram is recommended every 2 years.1

Trans men who have not had bilateral mastectomy or who only had a breast reduction should undergo an annual mammogram after age 40. After age 50, mammograms can be done every 2 years (but can be continued annually dependent on patient risk and preference). For trans men who have had bilateral mastectomy, chest wall examinations are recommended.3

Breast/Chest self-exams are recommended monthly for both transgender and cisgender populations to pick up early signs of cancer! To learn more about how to do a self-exam, see my previous post here.

Aloha ❤

Frozen Shoulder & Capsulitis after Breast Cancer Surgery

Frozen Shoulder & Capsulitis after Breast Cancer Surgery

Staying on topic with complications after breast cancer surgery. The two I’ll discuss today are common and can be disruptive to daily life. You’ve probably heard of frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis), but you may not have heard about breast capsulitis after breast reconstruction. Let’s dive in a little deeper.

What is capsulitis?

Capsulitis is inflammation of a joint capsule or the capsule around a breast implant that can lead to scar tissue adhesions and stiffening or immobilization of the joint or breast capsule. Uncomfortable – yes. Functionally limiting? Also, yes.

Frozen shoulder

While frozen shoulder (adhesive capsulitis) can occur after any shoulder injury, it can occasionally occur without any injury, and is more common in females and in people with diabetes mellitus or hypothyroidism. Frozen shoulder typically presents as a significant loss of motion in the shoulder with or without pain. To read a bit more about frozen shoulder, click here.

After breast cancer surgery, frozen shoulder is also common. For women aged 50-59, women who had mastectomy, or women who had breast reconstruction, the risk of developing frozen shoulder on the affected side is approximately 10%.1

Functionally, frozen shoulder leads to difficulty getting dressed, showering, combing your hair, lifting and carrying objects, driving, sleeping, and a whole lot of things we do on a daily basis.

Physical therapists treat frozen shoulder using manual therapy like joint mobilizations, teaching passive stretches and gradually strengthening around the joint as motion improves, and educating patients on healing timeline and ways to modify daily activities to improve use of the arm and reduce pain.

Rehab for frozen shoulder can sometimes take close to a year before a person feels “back to normal.” If caught early enough (i.e. during the “freezing phase” when motion loss begins to occur), a steroid injection can help to minimize the symptoms and restrictions. See your doctor right away if you notice a major loss in joint motion after breast cancer surgery.

Post-reconstruction capsulitis

Post-reconstruction capsulitis or capsular contracture can occur when fibrotic changes occur in the tissue capsule that forms around new breast impants. The breast around the new implant hardens, can become painful, and the breast shape can become distorted. To read a bit more about capsular contracture, click here.

Risk for developing capsular contracture is higher after radiation therapy or following infection, hematoma, or seroma that develops around a new implant. It is not clear whether smooth versus textured implants play a role in development of capsulitis.

Typically, if capsulitis occurs and is painful, distorts the breast shape or an underlying infection is present, revision surgery is needed. In Australia, approximately 39% of revision surgeries each year are due to capsular contracture.2 With early stage contracture, a physical therapist can use manual therapy to try to restore motion and prevent further fibrosis of the breast. A PT will also be sure to address shoulder, neck, and chest wall motion which could be compromised with post-implant capsulitis.

For both frozen shoulder and post-reconstruction capsulitis, getting into see a physical therapist early is important to prevent loss of motion and to reduce pain. Ideally, PT’s would love to see breast cancer patients within 4-6 weeks after breast surgery or reconstruction. Developing a relationship with a physical therapist during and after breast cancer can be a great asset to your health and wellness beyond cancer. Ask your surgeon for a referral or find a PT in your area here.

Aloha ❤

Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Surgery

Lymphedema, a type of swelling in the arm, is an unfortunate complication after breast cancer surgery. I hope this blog will give you a better understanding of the lymphatic system and how to recognize early signs of lymphedema if you’ve recently had or are about to have breast cancer surgery.
*Technically, lymphedema can occur in any limb after lymph nodes are removed, but to keep it simple, I’ll focus on upper extremity lymphedema today.

Overview of Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is a network of nodes, vessels and organs that function as the body’s immune system. Lymphatic fluid (or lymph) is a protein-rich fluid which contains white blood cells. Lymph carries bacteria and viruses to be filtered through the lymph nodes and helps to prevent infection in the body.

Unlike blood, which is circulated around the body, lymph only flows one way (toward the heart) and requires a pressure gradient and muscular contractions to flow efficiently.

Anatomy of the Lymphatic System
Photo borrowed from Merck Manual1

Lymphatic Disruption after Breast Surgery

From my last post, you know that surgery for breast cancer usually involves removal of the tumor itself as well as removal of lymph nodes in the axilla (underarm). Lymph node removal is done because cancer cells can break off and travel through the lymphatic system and those nodes in the axilla are usually the first place they go.

To be sure the correct nodes are examined, the surgeon uses a radioactive dye to determine which nodes drain directly from the tumor site. Procedures to remove lymph nodes can range from removal of only a few nodes in a sentinel lymph node biopsy to many nodes (up to 20 nodes) in an axillary dissection.

With any amount of nodes removed (but especially with >5 nodes removed), there can be disruption to lymphatic flow through the axilla. In some cases, the lymph is unable to drain from the arm, resulting in lymphedema.

Lymphedema presents as a “swollen” arm, but this is not your usual swelling for two reasons. One, because lymphatic flow is a one-way street, the extra fluid needs to be physically cleared in some way (more on this in a minute…) and, two, because lymph is full of protein and fats that won’t drain into the venous system the way typical swelling does. The limb can actually grow and harden if left untreated.

Stages of Lymphedema – Photo borrowed from Sigvaris2

Studies show that lymphedema occurs in 0-3% of people who choose lumpectomy and up to 65-70% of those who have a modified radical mastectomy.3 Radiation therapy also seems to increase the risk of lymphedema. While many people will develop symptoms in the first 3 years after surgery, lymphedema can take up to 5 years to develop after cancer treatments. Be sure to ask your doctor or physical therapist what your risk for developing lymphedema is and learn about risk reduction practices.

Signs & Symptoms of Lymphedema

  • Swelling in the arm (usually only on side of surgery)
  • Heaviness/tightness of the arm
  • Reduced range of motion of the joints in the affected arm
  • Thickening/hardening of the skin

Physical Therapy Treatment for Lymphedema

A trained lymphedema physical therapist can be an incredible asset to someone who develops lymphedema. Ideally, a physical therapist will be able to work with a patient pre- and post-operatively to monitor girth measurements of the limb and identify lymphedema early on. Stage I lymphedema is potentially reversible, and both stage II and III can demonstrate significant reduction, so seeing a PT sooner than later is key in managing this condition!

With development of lymphedema, a physical therapist can perform or recommend the following interventions:

  • Bandaging of the limb or prescription of compression garments
  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (specialized lymphatic massage)
  • Exercise prescription (progressive muscle pump, aerobic activity)
  • Patient education on proper skin care and prevention of infection

It’s important to see your doctor or physical therapist as soon as possible if you notice signs/symptoms of lymphedema. Here is a great resource to find a lymphedema specialist in your area. As always, feel free to reach out to me with any questions!

Aloha ❤

Big thanks to Joanne Zazzera, PT, DPT, WCS, for sharing her knowledge and editing this blog!

Physical Therapy after Breast Cancer Surgery

Physical Therapy after Breast Cancer Surgery

Ever since Angelina Jolie publicly addressed her preventative bilateral mastectomy in 2013, many women have the idea that removing both breasts is typical care for breast cancer. While a bilateral mastectomy is still a popular option (both to prevent recurrence and to reduce anxiety about recurrence), there are actually many options for women with breast cancer to consider.

Breast Surgery Overview

The goals of surgery are to remove as much of the cancer as possible and also to examine the lymph nodes nearby to determine how much the cancer has spread locally. Thus, a breast cancer surgery often includes one incision on the chest where the cancer is removed and one in the underarm where the lymph nodes are removed for biopsy. There are also options for breast reconstruction (which is usually multiple surgeries), should someone desire it for cosmetic purposes.

  • Options for breast surgery include:
    • Breast-conserving surgery or BCS (lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, etc.) – removal of part of the breast which contains cancer and a margin of normal cells surrounding the tumor.
    • Mastectomy
      • Simple – removal of all breast tissue including nipple and areola (and usually some skin, but it is possible to have skin- and/or nipple-sparing procedures).
      • Modified radical – removal of all breast tissue along with all lymph nodes under the arm.
      • Radical – removal of all breast tissue and the chest wall muscle (this surgery is rarely done unless the cancer has spread into the chest wall).
  • Types of lymph node removal include:
    • Sentinel lymph nose biopsy (SLNB) – removal of the lymph node(s) to which the cancer would likely spread first
    • Axillary lymph node dissection (ALND) – removal of many (usually less than 20) lymph nodes from under the arm
  • Optional breast reconstruction can include:
    • Implants
    • Autografts – tissue from another part of the body is used to recreate the breast (Reconstruction options are a whole post in itself!)

Many breast surgeons now push for breast conserving surgery (BCS) because having a more aggressive surgery doesn’t always result in better quality of life or reduce cancer survival rates significantly. In fact, having BCS in combination with radiation therapy has been proven to be equally, if not more, effective at improving survival rates than a mastectomy alone.1, 2 This information is especially important for those with triple negative breast cancer who do no have the option of hormonal therapy.

Of course, cancer stage (how large the tumor is and whether the cancer has spread) and grade (how quickly the cancer is growing) both influence the type of surgery and treatment someone may need. Discuss with your oncologist and surgeon which option is the best for you in your recovery.

Physical Therapy

No matter the type of surgery a person chooses for breast cancer treatment, a physical therapist is an integral part of post-surgical recovery. PTs help to maximize the body’s natural healing process, restore range of motion to the shoulder, neck and chest wall after surgery, perform scar mobilization and soft tissue work to the affected muscles, and (most importantly) help people to return to their usual activities!

Some post-op considerations for physical therapy after breast cancer include care of post-surgical drains, observance of proper wound care at the incision site, monitoring for signs of infection, and protecting sensitive skin with post-operative radiation. While all PTs are able to treat a patient post-surgically, there are oncology physical therapists who have more training to look for other complications, especially early signs of lymphedema and cording (stay tuned for my next post).

If you or a loved one are interested in trying physical therapy after breast cancer, ask your doctor for a referral. Most oncologists and breast surgeons work closely with physical therapists and they can send you to a PT they trust in your area. If you want to do some research on physical therapists who are familiar with breast cancer rehabilitation in your area, you can use the APTA PT Locator or search through the APTA Academy of Pelvic Health.

Hope this information is helpful – go schedule with your PT today!

Aloha ❤