Breast Cancer Lymphedema Etiquette

Lymphedema Etiquette

Etiquette Schmetiquette…or “So What’s Up with Your Arm?”

Lesley Ronson Brown – Certified Yoga Teacher.

One day I was walking though our local city hall and I heard a voice behind me shouting, “Oh!  Breast Cancer, huh?!”  The shouter loped up beside me, pointed at my compression sleeve-clad arm and loudly jabbered away about breast cancer.  I was speechless and could only stare at her as I kept walking.  Faster and faster.  I felt invaded, stunned, violated and angry. While I am very open and happy to talk about my breast cancer and lymphedema experience, I prefer to do it on my own terms.  In a more select venue.  Without shouting.  Like on a blog.

People still ask about my sleeved arm, but usually in a quieter manner. It is similar to being pregnant when everyone has to make a comment or ask a question.  When are you due?  Is it your first one?  How’s that morning sickness?  While this can feel intrusive and sometimes annoying, at least it is about what is usually a joyful event.  And no one has to point and ask, “What happened to your belly?”  I think they know.

So how do we answer these questions?  I won’t even type what I often think to say!  Though I will share my favorite comeback with you:   “I bitch slapped someone.”
The poor man who asked about my arm looked so horrified that I felt badly.  But it did shut him up.  He asked me no more questions.  He backed away from me.  I felt a surge of empowerment, which was nice, because dealing with major illnesses can make us feel powerless or resigned.

Like anything that hurts, time can be a great healer.  Getting used to wearing our compression sleeves or bandages is a big help in how we present ourselves to others. I felt awkward and self-conscious when I first began wearing my sleeve which contributed to the distress I felt from the city hall shouter.  Today I might have put my hand on her arm to quell her comments and said, “I beg your pardon?” with a Maggie Smith-look that would let her know that no more comments are welcome.  Now I usually say,  “I had surgery which caused my arm to swell and this compresses it to keep the swelling down.”  I find this simple answer works best.  People don’t usually ask what type of surgery it was.  And their look of curiosity and concern lessens even more when I add, “But it doesn’t hurt!”  They actually seem relieved.

I like to wear colorful sleeves, often with patterns, that I use like fashion accessories.  When I do this, I move with more joy and lightheartedness which keeps people focused on me vs. just my arm.  People think I am very hip and have a full arm tattoo!  In fact, I get more questions about my arm when I wear the plain beige ones, since they look more bandage-like. I still wear the plain ones, too; it depends on my outfit. Like all fashion, it is the solid dark black sleeve or smaller prints that make my arm look the slimmest.  The larger prints can be quite fun, but not so slimming. If you don’t have access to try on different sleeves, try on a pair of solid dark pants in a retail store and then a pair with a large red hibiscus on your rear end.  You’ll see what I’m talking about!  But a slim looking arm is not the most important thing.  Wear what you feel best in and what will bring you good health.  That is what is important.
Lymphedema Yoga
Wearing fun sleeves helps, but it is yoga that helps me reach into myself and develop skills to handle things like this and other life situations.  How we handle dealing with cancer or lymphedema is how we handle everything in our lives.  If we look at things positively, yoga helps us maintain the equilibrium that comes with a positive outlook. If we look at things negatively, yoga can move us in a more positive direction. Yoga helps us feel connected, which helps us feel better about everything.  When we feel disconnected, we are not grounded and have nothing to hang onto. That does not feel good, so we act in ways that do not benefit us or the people around us.  Deep yoga breathing and asana can ground us and return us to a sense of calm and well being.  Do it!

About Lesley Ronson Brown is a two-time breast cancer survivor and a three-time lymph node cancer survivor.  She has had lymphedema since 2011 and has learned how to manage it through traditional and complementary therapies.  Lesley is a certified Yoga teacher, with a specialty certification in Restorative Yoga, and has taught for more than 15 years.  She also is certified in Pilates and Group Fitness Exercise.

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  1. Thank you for the inspirational blog post, Rika.



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