A couple of weeks ago, I decided to join 4 or 5 Facebook groups for women dealing with a current or past breast cancer diagnosis. I thought it would be a good opportunity to hear from women who are in my position as well as a chance to give back any advice or perspective I’ve gained in my nearly 3-year experience.
In the few days that I’ve been a member, I have seen some pretty eye opening posts. There are two topics I’ve seen a lot about: post-mastectomy soreness and skin care during radiation. I hope that I can shed a little light. Please share this information if you find it useful.
Soreness after mastectomy
After a mastectomy (particularly a bilateral mastectomy), the entire torso may be sore, to some degree, depending on your pain tolerance. Why? Because breasts are not external objects that are simply removed. Incisions are made and the surgeon’s hands and instruments are placed under the skin all the way up to the collar bones just below the chin because breast tissue is not contained solely in the “cup” of the breast. It’s all along the chest wall from clavicle to bottom of the ribs and side to side. They do a procedure they call “scraping.” It can leave the body feeling sore.
I remember when I breast fed my kids. When my milk first came in, I had fullness and pressure all over my upper body. Not pain, but intense fullness. It started near my shoulders/clavicle and spread to my pec area, and outward under my arms. Finally, both kids got the hang of breast feeding and relieved this pressure. I remember waiting and waiting for them to wake up so that they would nurse, and I’d feel comfy again.
The reason is that breast tissue, milk ducts, really cover far more surface area than just the cup part of the breast that we typically associate with boobs.
That’s why tissue must be removed from the entire chest wall. And that’s why soreness covers a large area. Muscles are affected, nerves are affected. It’s a very involved procedure. I hope that doctors are fully explaining this to patients.
Skin care during radiation
There are radiation oncologists who “allow” patients to use skin care products during treatment. I urge women who find themselves in need of radiation to find one of these doctors. I saw some pictures this week of a woman who was severely burned. Others were commenting that they were “allowed” to use cornstarch only. I almost cried.
When I was about to undergo treatment, I met with 3 radiation oncologists. The first was just a scary person in general. I wouldn’t have gone to her for a manicure let alone life saving treatment. So I honestly can’t remember what she said. Bad vibes.
The second was Dr. Jewell. His nurse talked with me extensively about treatment and all of the products that they approve for my use during the weeks of treatment as long as my skin was left clean and clear during the actual treatment.
I really liked Dr. Jewell and his staff, but I got a third opinion because the first was so bad I almost couldn’t count her.
The third was equally a nightmare. She insisted that I use nothing on my skin for the entire 6 weeks. I would be permitted to wash with Dove soap and use cornstarch. I’ll tell you what I think of Dove soap and cornstarch.
Dove soap is actually marketed as a “beauty bar.” It’s meant to moisturize more than clean. And the quality of its moisturizers is very low grade. It has a list of more than a dozen ingredients, most of which are preservatives and detergents. It’s a bunch of crap. It’s not the kind of stuff I’d put on my skin even if I weren’t going through radiation, so why start now? Second, cornstarch is used to keep the skin dry. Dry? Really?? That is not at all what is needed. Chemicals and dryness. No thanks.
In the end, I went with Dr. Jewell. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
During radiation, I was actually under the beam for about 55 seconds, which is typical. It doesn’t have to be long to be effective. The skin on my upper left quadrant was to be completely clean and clear. My radiation time was 10:45 am so I’d shower and go to my appointment without using any products on that area. But, in my purse, I had a naturopathic apothecary.
In the changing room after treatment, I applied a mixture of calendula cream and emu oil. Calendula cream comes from the calendula flower, a member of the daisy family and often called marigold. It has myriad benefits. Butch recommended it to me. Here’s what I found on the web about it: “Calendula creams and washes are used to disinfect minor wounds and to treat infections of the skin. The antibacterial and immunostimulant properties of the plant make it extremely useful in treating slow-healing cuts and cuts in people who have compromised immune systems.” Boom. Done. It can be found online, in stores or maybe your local naturopath has it in stock.
Emu oil is extracted from the adipose (fat) tissue of emus. Here’s why it’s good: “According to WebMD, emu oil contains fatty acids that can reduce pain and swelling and may help reduce sudden inflammation and chronic inflammation. If applied directly to the skin, emu oil can help reduce pain and irritation from shingles, bedsores, hemorrhoids, insect bites, rashes and razor burn, and more.” It’s not as hard to find as it sounds. I got mine at GNC. It’s also online.
As soon as treatment was over, I squeezed a generous amount of calendula cream into my palm and mixed in emu oil. I then applied it to the entire area of my chest (more on coverage area in a minute). I took my time and followed the nurse’s advice about being gentle and working with the direction of lymphatic drainage.
Then, I’d reapply later in the day. Around 3 or 4 pm, I repeated the process.
At bedtime, I used a whole different product. It’s called tamanu oil. It’s smelly, it stains everything a sort of greenish color and it’s sticky. But it’s so worth it. I simply sacrificed two t-shirts and a pillow case that I wasn’t heartbroken to toss for the cause after treatment was over.
Tamanu oil comes from a nut grown in the South Pacific and has been used for centuries to clear up almost any skin condition. Here’s what the web says: “Tamanu is one of the most effective agents in promoting the formation of new tissue, thereby accelerating wound healing and the growth of healthy skin. This process is known as cicatrization in medical terms. Essentially, it means that tamanu oil is a powerful skin regenerator.” This recommendation came to me from my plastic surgeon. I bought mine at Vitamin Cottage (a regional chain in the CO, NM, AZ, CA). It’s also online.
Now, here’s the important part.
It worked. Like, crazy good. You know how I know? Because I accidentally did a scientific study.
I didn’t realize that the beam went as far back to where the back of my armpit meets my shoulder blade. So I wasn’t applying any of the creams back there. Somewhere around the end of treatment, I had a relatively small (a few inches) but painful, deep burn there. It was right where the arm moves and swings against the body, so I felt it far before I saw it. And I was surprised to realize that the beam was being aimed that far back (cancer cells had been in my nodes).
Once I discovered it, I had to use silver sulfadiazine cream to prevent infection. It’s an antibiotic that is used to treat second- and third-degree burns. And once the sore closed over, I used my other formulas there. So I know, for a fact, that had I not used this regimen, I would’ve suffered needlessly.
The doctors who didn’t “allow” skin care during treatment said that the reason is that they didn’t want the radiation to be blocked. Hey! There’s some news! You can block radiation with calendula cream and raspberries, folks! (Yes, one doctor told me that there are too many good antioxidants in berries to eat them during treatment). I bet Marie Curie wishes she’d known that! Or the technicians who administered my treatment. Little did they know that they didn’t have to leave the room and go behind a lead wall to avoid the scattered radiation. They could just stand there coated in calendula and eating a big old bowl of berries. Problem solved.
Here’s the list in short form: immediately after treatment, I used a blend of calendula cream and emu oil. Six hours later, I reapplied. At bed time, I used tamanu oil. In the morning, it was all washed off in the shower in time for the next treatment.
My skin looks amazing. Not only did the products work, but the application gave me at least three opportunities a day to massage the tissue and keep it mobile.