Finding a Way Through
Postmastectomy pain syndrome (PMPS) – a chronic pain that does not go away over time.
It is a very real condition that can affect women who have had a radical mastectomy, modified radical mastectomy, or breast-conserving surgery. Symptoms can vary from feeling persistent or intermittent pain in the chest, armpit, arm, and/or shoulder. In addition to the chronic pain, there can be numbness, tingling, severe itching, and a shooting or pricking pain. Although the symptoms are not generally severe, they can impact quality of life. The chronic pain can also create other health complications. Pain may cause the favouring of one arm resulting in frozen shoulder syndrome, shoulder misalignment, or even increasing the risk of developing lymphedema. There is no clear reason as to why some women experience post-mastectomy pain syndrome over others. It may be a result of nerve damage caused by nerves severed during the mastectomy, however the cause is not known for sure. Between 20 and 30 percent of women who have breast surgery develop postmastectomy pain syndrome.
Managing the pain – finding what works best for the individual – is imperative and should be incorporated into daily routine. Pain management can help ensure quality of life is sustained.
Why am I discussing postmastectomy pain syndrome now, almost 6 years post-surgery? Because I suffer from it. I have chronic pain caused from my mastectomy and it has not subsided or gone away. The symptoms that I suffer from are intermittent pain in the chest, tingling, as well as numbness through my arm and into my fingers. I am also prone to swelling [in my lymph nodes] in my lower chest cavity. I have also had to work through shoulder misalignment, neck/shoulder pain, and cording. I have had to modify my daily routines, and learn how to balance my activities and restructure my days to ensure I do not exasperate the pain or experience set backs in my healing process. I have had to find a way through my pain. Taking the advice from medical professionals and through trial and error, I have learned techniques and activities that alleviate the discomforts I feel daily. I have learned to manage my pain without the use of medication. I wanted to share these techniques and activities with you in hopes that – should you also suffer from PMPS – you can perhaps try these suggestions if you have not already, and hopefully achieve some form of relief from the chronic pain.
1. Physiotherapy. I have talked a lot about physiotherapy over the years in many of my posts. The benefits of physiotherapy are notable. Physiotherapy after breast cancer surgery aids in pain management, lymphedema, and range of motion. Over these past 5 years of working with my physiotherapist I have greatly improved my range of motion and am able to manage my chronic pain. My physiotherapist has shown me targeted and effective exercises that, when done regularly, release tension and manage the pain through my scar tissue and chest cavity. She has shown me how to alleviate fluid build up in my lymph nodes to reduce swelling; and when to recognize that stillness and deep breathing will benefit a specific pain sensation when I feel it. Her expertise and healing hands have carried me through this journey and I cannot imagine my life without her there to help me manage my chronic pain.
2. Massage Therapy. Just as physiotherapy has aided me post-surgery so too, has massage therapy. I carry my body differently since losing my breast. My alignment is compromised, and I recognize that I hold myself as well as move differently to alleviate pain or to compensate for weakness. Massage therapy has helped me work through these alignment issues and offered relief in muscle tension and strain. It is also calming. Massage therapy allows me to feel in touch with my whole body, bringing an awareness to self. It is whole-body calming and therapeutic.
3. Frankincense Oil. I talked extensively about the power of Frankincense Oil in my post Frankincense – King of Oils? The anti-inflammatory effects work wonders on me. I use it between physiotherapy and massage therapy treatments as a topical ointment (mixed with coconut oil), massaging my scar and lymph nodes in my lower chest cavity. It helps reduce the swelling I often get – a result of lymphedema – and provides relief from inflammation and tenderness.
4. Low-impact Exercising. I have tried high-impact exercising over these past five years but often I feel worse – I experience shoulder/neck pain, tightening through the scar tissue and chest, cording, and numbness in my arm, as well as swelling in my lower chest cavity. All exasperated by high-impact exercising. It has taken trial and error with regards to my exercising, to find what benefits me with the challenges I work through. Ballet barre, pilates, walking, cycling, and kayaking all provide me with a workout that allows me to feel my best without aggravating my lymphedema, cording, or nerve damage. I have regained flexibility, strength, range of motion, and chronic pain management by introducing these workouts into my weekly routine.
5. Colouring. There is a simplicity about colouring. As I have talked about before in my previous posts There is Love and Seven Ways to Ease Pandemic Fatigue, colouring, though not art therapy, is extremely therapeutic. It induces a state of calm, which allows for thoughts to become restful. This helps when I am overcome with anxiety from the chronic pain. It also helps me by managing that pain. Colouring builds on the fine motor skills, deepening my endurance in completing writing tasks. Post-surgery, I experienced extreme hand fatigue and numbness in three of my four fingers. Over the years, colouring has helped me to rebuild my hand endurance by limbering and strengthening the muscles compromised by the mastectomy. Although the numbness in my fingers still occurs, the colouring does help. With this gentle activity I do benefit in both mind and body.
If you experience post mastectomy pain, the first thing you really should do is consult with your doctor or oncologist. They may wish to rule out other possible causes prior to recommending therapies or treatments. If we have all learned one thing while traversing this breast cancer journey, it is to never ignore your symptoms. Have your voice and concerns heard. If you are diagnosed with PMPS and are seeking ways to alleviate and manage the pain without the use of medication, perhaps give some of my suggestions a try. I hope you do, and if you do, I hope they offer you with some form of relief.
If you have suggestions you would like to share, please add them to the comments. If there is one thing I value in our community of thrivers and survivors it is the sharing of each other’s wisdom, experiences, and journey.
Finding a Way Through. Published by Crystal Joy Hall
Featured Image by Daria Shevtso