As I lay in bed healing from another surgery I feel compelled to write this so maybe I can prevent others from suffering the way I have. Keep in mind that I am not a doctor, just a breast cancer survivor who is expressing my opinion based on my own experiences.
When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my husband and I were shocked and scared. We both thought we should do whatever the doctor suggested so I could get rid of the cancer quickly. So when my doctor, a general practitioner, not a breast cancer specialist, suggested I have all the lymph nodes under my left arm removed I thought nothing of it. I was so focused on the big C; I just followed her blindly.
In hindsight, we really should have done our research. At the time I did not even know what lymphedema was, I didn’t know how important your lymph nodes were and I did not know that she would check all my lymph nodes for cancer except the sentinel lymph node (the first node you are supposed to check!)
Since that decision I have had complications with every one of my numerous surgeries. I have filled up with lymphatic fluid again and again, I have had drains installed, removed and put back into my body until my left side looks like a pincushion. Finally, I watched my left reconstructed breast fall apart until the expander popped through a hole in it! Now I lay in bed healing from my second expansion surgery, praying that this one will take!
Axillary lymph node dissection used to be a common practice in breast cancer patients. There has been a recent campaign to put an end to unnecessary and excessive cancer treatments. Many of them not only do not help the breast cancer patients, but harm them! I am living, breathing proof of that!
A recent study on axillary lymph node dissection in breast cancer patients disproved some of the old ways of thinking. The current scanning technology is not able to detect tiny tumors that could be present in the lymph nodes leaving the only effective method available for completely checking lymph nodes is removing them surgically. But, this means countless unnecessary surgeries will be performed on breast cancer patients like myself whose lymph node were free of any cancer.
Over the past ten years, surgeons have been performing sentinel lymph node dissections instead of axillary lymph node dissection, a much less risky procedure. In sentinel lymph node dissection surgeons simply inject a dye near a tumor to determine which lymph nodes drain directly from the tumor. If the first lymph nodes removed in surgery are negative for cancer, than the chances of more lymph nodes testing positive for cancer is very low and the patient does not need to have axillary lymph node dissection. This information would have been very helpful to me before I made my decision!
While you may think axillary lymph node dissection is the right thing to do, take it from me, before you get an axillary lymph node dissection: think first, talk to a specialist, and do your research! Sure, initially I was thrilled to hear my lymph nodes came back negative but I may be facing a lifelong problem and may never be able to have a successful reconstruction!
There has been very little research on the risks of complications and what women should do to reduce their risk for lymphedema and infections. If you have had axillary lymph node dissection already, very recent studies suggest strongly that some of the instructions given to you by your doctor have the potential to increase risk for lymphedema. It is vital that you be your own advocate for your health!