6 Months Post-Treatment: Follow-ups, Scares, and Progress
Still working on that Mastectomy checklist post - it's taken longer than expected! In the meantime, I thought I'd provide an update on how I'm doing 6 months post-treatment and share a little bit about a health scare I had last week.
Right now, I'm about 15 months post-chemo, 13 months post-surgery, 9 months post-radiation, and 6 months post-Herceptin. Because my tumors were hormone receptor-negative, that means I'm basically finished with all treatments specifically focused on fighting cancer (those with hormone-positive breast cancer are often on hormone therapy for years or decades). I say "basically finished" while I've been through all of the treatment required for my type of cancer/stage/age, there's a new drug created for HER-2 positive breast cancer that I'm considering taking - it's called Neratinib/Nerylnx - more on that in another post.
I knew I had my follow ups with my plastic surgeon, radiation oncologist, and medical oncologist coming up. I was feeling totally fine about the appointments - even looking forward to seeing my doctors, who I love but thankfully have not needed to see for several months. However, my excitement quickly changed to nervousness last week. I had a tender spot on my rib that didn't seem to be muscular. I had a bit of a meltdown when my physical therapist confirmed that it wasn't muscular and suggested I let my oncologist know, just to be safe. The last time I got a test just to be safe, I found out I had cancer, so that's where my brain immediately went. I normally don't worry about recurrence that often, but there were about 48 hours where I was pretty terrified that the cancer had metastasized to my bones. Thankfully, I happened to already have a bunch of follow-ups scheduled with my doctors. The day after I saw my physical therapist, I met with my radiation oncologist and mentioned the bone pain. She said that it's totally normal for my mind to go there, particularly when I have a pain in my ribs and within a year of ending treatment, and ordered an X-Ray to be safe. That was a long day, waiting for those scan results, but thankfully my doctor called that evening to tell me that my scan was normal. What a rollercoaster, but I am so grateful that I am healthy!
I thought it might be helpful for those of you who are just starting or still in treatment to hear an update on my healing process. I wish I had a crystal ball during treatment so I could see how much better I'd be in a year! If you're a patient, also remember that everyone experiences treatment differently - I had a high level of toxicity with chemo, so some areas are taking a bit longer than the average person to recover. Everyone heals at their own pace.
Below are basically all of the items I covered with my doctors in my follow-up appointments - and my doctors all agreed that I'm on track and they're really pleased with my progress!
9 Months Post-Radiation
Skin: It's a slight shade darker from the rest of my body, but not that noticeable at all. It feels healthy and smooth, I just need to continue moisturizing it and not exposing it to the sun too much. My radiation oncologist said it's in great shape.
Pain: From time to time, I get a tiny bit of tenderness in the corner of my armpit where radiation smoked me the most. But that's about it!
I'm fortunate because, for me, radiation was basically short-term discomfort and annoyance with very little long-term side effects.
1 Year Post-Mastectomy & Reconstruction
Implants: Fortunately, I went direct-to-implant during my mastectomy, so I didn't need to deal with tissue expanders. It probably took about 3 months for the implants to "settle in," and overall I'm pretty happy with them. I had a pretty rare thing happen to one of my implants which results in them not being symmetrical, but it doesn't really bother me so I'm not having a follow up surgery to get it fixed (I'll share more on that another time). The biggest improvement over the past 6 months is that I barely notice I have implants - I'm no longer acutely aware of their presence every moment of the day.
Range of Motion: I've had full range of motion since a few months out from surgery. Physical therapy is amazing - don't give up on those daily exercises!!
Scars: My scars from the mastectomy and lymph node removal are barely there - I am so impressed. My scar from the port placement and removal is much more noticeable, but with Vitamin E on it every day, it's gradually getting better.
15 Months Post-Chemo/6 Months Post-Herceptin
Fatigue: This has improved so much over the past year, and even in the past 3 months or so. I definitely don't have the same energy levels I had pre-treatment, and pretty consistently have mild fatigue. However, I can still go about life pretty normally - I can go to a conference all day and while I'll be tired at the end of the day, I can get through it without naps or feeling like I need to be scraped off of the floor when the day's over.
Neuropathy: None! I barely had any during chemo - the couple of times I did experience it, taking a high dose of L-glutamine and B vitamins resolved it within a day or two. I iced my hands and feet during Taxotere, which I think helped me avoid this side effect.
Chemobrain: Still there, but definitely improving. In the past 3 months since my last checkup, I've seen the most improvement in my memory. I'm still really forgetful, but I'm not forgetting what I'm saying in the middle of talking or forgetting words nearly as frequently as I was. I still have issues with attention span and focus, but I'm learning strategies to work and operate differently so I don't get overwhelmed as often.
GI Issues: Minimal. It took me about 3 months post-chemo to get over the worst of the nausea and gain my appetite back, but almost a year for my GI tract to slowly heal itself and normalize after chemo. I still get minor bouts of nausea here and there, but except for Norovirus last month, I've been feeling pretty good in this area. However, I've found that I'm thrown off balance pretty easily through diet and travel, so consistency seems to be key.
Hair: After I finished cold capping, I still kept shedding for another month or two. So I have about a year of hair growth in the places where I had bald or thin spots. I'm officially past the most awkward stages of regrowth and I think it mostly blends in together pretty well. My hair is the same color, texture, and straightness that it was pre-chemo.
Breathing: No issues - shortness of breath after chemo resolved itself within about 6-8 months.
Strength: Improving! I lost a lot of muscle over my year of treatment, but I've been back in the gym a few times a week since August and am gradually increasing my strength and endurance. It sucks to have to start from zero, but it's been amazing to see my body becoming stronger.
Anxiety: Well, we're still working on this one :) Definitely improving, but still working through it. I've started seeing an amazing therapist who is helping a lot, but it also just takes time and patience and distance from treatment.