I remember sitting in my oncology surgeon’s office waiting for him to arrive and give me the results of my biopsy. When he finally did arrive, he sat down at his computer, took a deep breath and, with his eyes fixated on mine, said, ‘Well, the tests came back positive. Cancer was present in the first lymph node. But with chemotherapy and a mastectomy your prognosis is good – about 80 per cent’.
After that, I didn’t hear a thing he was saying. The surgeon’s words were nothing but a distant throbbing echo inside my head. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I was in total shock.
‘What happens if I decide not to have chemo?’ I blurted out. I think it was the sound of his jaw hitting the floor and bouncing back again that jolted me back into reality.
Then there were the weeks of chemo treatment, sitting for hours at a time hooked up intravenously to one bag after the other of miracle-working drugs. There were so many blood tests, my poor veins were encrusted – I felt sorry for the phlebotomist who had to gingerly poke up and down my arms every visit. I had regular electrocardiograms (EKGs) to monitor the effects of the chemicals on the heart, and a double mastectomy followed by multiple reconstructive surgeries. Not forgetting, of course, one of the most traumatic aspects of cancer treatment, losing my hair.
And, of course, life must go on – work, friends, family and community commitments.
Such is the predicament for many women going through the trauma of breast cancer.
But it doesn’t end there. For many women whose cancer has resulted in removal or damage of lymph nodes, there can be the added affliction of lymphoedema. This side effect causes lymph fluid to build up in tissue under the skin causing swelling and pain, permanently restricting these women’s ability to perform day-to-day tasks.
What many women don’t realise is that exercise is an important part of the recovery process.
For over 30 years, YWCA Australia’s Encore program has been supporting women experiencing breast cancer. An award-winning health and wellness program, YWCA Encore has been designed specifically for women who have experienced mastectomy, lumpectomy, or breast reconstruction surgery. This free program helps women of all fitness levels improve their overall fitness as well as manage the side effects associated with breast cancer treatment. Goals include improving mobility and flexibility in the upper body, relieving the discomfort associated with surgery and treatment, and reducing the risk of lymphoedema.
Encore comprises very gentle land and pool-based exercises, as well as information sessions with a focus on body image, self-esteem, and reducing stress and tension.
Throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, Facilitators of the YWCA Encore program have provided encouragement and caring support for women just like Coral and Catherine of Parkes.
Coral has participated in two Encore programs.
‘I felt a bit hesitant about going to put on my swimmers after my mastectomy but our beautiful facilitators Di and Cath made me feel at ease with their caring manner and guidance in the exercise we did. I’ve benefited heaps in the movement in my arm from the exercises they’ve given me to do. I’ll put up my hand to do them again.’
Catherine also found Encore an excellent program and particularly enjoyed the information sessions.
‘The guest speakers were all great; I particularly found the dietician and the bra-fitting lady helpful. Our two facilitators were always careful to assist ladies with personal needs and always super fun.’
For survivors, life is a cherished encore.