I’m a tennis player. I love the sport and play in USTA tennis leagues. I couldn’t believe it when my surgeon described to me another surgical procedure that would threaten my ability to play tennis with my dominant arm.
Prior to and during the lumpectomy, there were a lot of “ifs.” The one that concerned me most was if cancer cells had entered the sentinel node, my surgeon would do an axillary lymph node dissection. The dissection involves scooping out lymph nodes under the armpit and testing them for cancer. The procedure would leave my arm forever at risk of lymphedema. My surgeon would find out what she needed to know through surgery pathology reports.
The Nightmare Scenario: pumping fluid daily from a perpetually swollen arm, having limited arm mobility, and wearing a compression sleeve and glove 24/7.
My health care provider’s literature explained that lymphedema may not affect everyone or be immediately present. Lymphedema could be triggered by trauma to the arm, like bug and animal bites, bone breaks, surgery, needles, and using a blood pressure cuff. The literature also said playing tennis is not recommended because of the arm’s repetitive motions. And neither is weight-bearing exercise, like yoga or pushups. I thought, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding! Those are the things I do!’
So, I zeroed in on what I really cared about. Let’s see: the tumor was in my right breast, I am a right-handed tennis player, and I might have to quit my sport? My common sense overrode the health care provider’s recommendation about tennis being a risk. I was not a novice tennis player. Muscle memory is real and I’d been playing tennis for years. In fact, I played up until the night before the surgery.
I prayed I wouldn’t have to have the lymph node procedure. I stayed positive.
Before leaving for the hospital, my boyfriend and I danced in the kitchen to my new anthems, “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige and “I Am Not My Hair” by India Arie. My priest met my family and me at the hospital and prayed with us. It was a long day of surgical prep, the longest and most painful mammogram ever, pathology tests, and waiting.
I remember waving to my peeps as I was rolled into surgery, but nothing else before going under anesthesia. When I came out of it, my surgeon was talking to me. It was like an out of body experience. She said cancer cells were detected in the sentinel node, so she did a lymph node procedure.
I never could bring myself to look at the surgery incisions or where the drainage tube came out the side of my body. But I woke up many times every night over the next few weeks to see if my arm had blown up and to check it for any changes. All I could think was whether I’d be able to play tennis again. Tennis was my motivation for getting healthy.