T-Shirt Wisdom

By: Lesley Ronson Brown

So, one day about two years ago, I was shopping and tried on a new t-shirt and noticed the left sleeve seemed tighter than the right one.  And I thought, “How strange, this shirt isn’t made very well.” And that’s where my thinking stopped.  If I had let myself think it through and looked beyond the immediate situation, I might have thought, “Hmm….How strange, why isn’t this shirt fitting me correctly?  Is it just some weird sizing by the manufacturer?  Did I gain weight?”  And maybe, finally, “What’s up with my arm?”

Even though I’m a yoga teacher and very much in touch with my body, I am also a woman who never thought I could possibly get lymphedema.  But to put it more honestly, I’m a woman who didn’t want to think about getting lymphedema, the disease that compromises lymphatic fluid flow, and causes swelling.

Yes, I had 17 lymph nodes removed in one arm and 7 on the other. Yes, I’d been given the pamphlets about lymphedema.  Yes, I’d been told to wear an arm sleeve when I flew.  But lymphedema just wasn’t at the top of mind for me.  I wasn’t going to think about it!

So what did I do? At first, after the t-shirt alert, I did nothing. But soon I began to notice that on my left arm, the triceps seemed a little bigger than on my right one. I could see the difference when I was doing an overhead press with weights I thought it was because I had been a waitress and carried my tray with my left arm, which worked my biceps more, making my triceps weaker. This made sense to me, so I wasn’t alarmed. I tried to strengthen the triceps more, but it didn’t make a difference.

Then one day, something happened that did alarm me.  While attending a yoga conference, I had a Thai massage.  I knew it was different from a regular massage, but didn’t quite know how.  After the first few minutes, I found out.  The practitioner put her body weight on me, pressing down substantially.  When she bent my left elbow and pressed down, I felt a “pop!” on the inside of my lower left arm.  It hurt a bit, so I asked her to stop and just do my lower body.  I had her finish early.  I told her my arm felt strange, and had gotten hard, and she said that this popping or hardening situation had never happened with other clients and suggested I put ice on it.  I do not think she did anything wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with Thai massage.  But it was wrong for me. Unfortunately, I had exposed my arm to trauma, one of the things we are warned about after lymph node surgery.

I visited my primary physician to get an x-ray, but she said not much would show up, because a bone wasn’t involved in the mild discomfort I was experiencing.  Neither she nor I were thinking lymphedema.  It wasn’t at the top of either of our minds. Keep it elevated, use more ice and come back if it got worse, she advised.

My arm remained slightly swollen and still hard, and one day, a friend who also had been on a breast cancer journey, asked if I thought I might have lymphedema.  I stared at her, horrified, and thought, “Blankety-blank, maybe I do have lymphedema.”  I went to a lymphedema physical therapist, who then confirmed that I indeed had lymphedema.  And she and I have become good friends over the past two years.

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