When I woke up from surgery I could feel this huge bandage, like a pillow, on my neck. I felt like Frankenstein.
I didn’t dare move my neck because I had visions of my head falling off.
But the bandage had to be changed, and that’s when I plucked up my courage to look in the mirror. What I saw was surprisingly innocuous. Instead of a huge wound, there were a few stitches, and some long but shallow cuts, spanning one side of the collarbone.
A week later, the surgeon removed the stitches, and this is what it looked like – the surgeon had cleverly made the cuts at the creases of the neck, so that the cuts weren’t so obvious:
I wish I could say that it was all happily-ever-after the morning after surgery: I pointed out to the surgeon that my arm was still paralysed. Gently, he told me that it could take up to six months for the arm to return, and even then there was no guarantee I would regain full function. Nerves only regenerate at the rate of about 1mm per month!
After about a month, I could raise my arm about three inches sideways. Not frontways. I couldn’t lift the arm at the elbow. Apparently, that was progress.
Six months after the mastectomy, and four months after the nerve surgery, I returned to work. My arm was still paralysed, but there was more range of motion. The range was strange though – more sideways than frontways. And there was still numbness in my arm and fingers. But after hoisting my arm on to the desk, and with the help of a wrist support, I could type after a fashion.
It was unnerving, returning to work after such a long absence. My heart was pounding as I walked down the corridor to the office. Oh god, the looks on the team members’ faces. I’d insisted that no one be told why I had a paralysed arm because I didn’t want pity, and also because I was a bit short-tempered and touchy and couldn’t cope with questions. So apart from my managers, no one knew what had happened.
Worse was the commute. Trying to balance with only one arm to hold onto a support, knowing that if the Tube jerked, I would fall. But there was no choice – if I didn’t go back to work, I wouldn’t get paid. My (then) husband wasn’t earning enough on his own to pay the mortgage and the household bills.
Progress, if that’s what it’s called, was slow.
To make things worse, the nerve injury led to a frozen left shoulder. And then the right shoulder started mirroring what was happening, and also developed a frozen shoulder. I never do things by halves!
The surgeon started talking about more surgery to the shoulder if it didn’t improve. This would involve drilling little holes into the bones of the shoulder to encourage the shoulder to loosen up. I wasn’t impressed. I knew that cancer was an inflammatory disease, so did not want any more surgery that would cause swelling, and encourage the cancer to spread.
With two frozen shoulders, I was so grateful that I hadn’t taken up my breast surgeon’s suggestion that I had breast reconstruction using the latissimus dorsi muscle in the left shoulder – if I’d had that surgery, I would really be in deep trouble. So small blessings.
I’m conscious that my account of the brachial plexus nerve injury has been going on for awhile, and I want to end it on a relatively happy note.
Five months after the nerve surgery, I started haltingly, to play the piano. The first few attempts were pretty pathetic, worse than a beginner. Don’t know why I persisted, but I had time on my hands, and I set myself the goal of playing something I’d always wanted to play, but never dared even before the arm paralysis: Chopin’s tricky Fantasie Impromptu in C# minor.
I think it was the piano-playing that really helped the nerves to heal. Some sort of muscle and nerve memory got dredged up, and the fingers and my left arm responded.
Here is a recording of my attempt at the Largo section of the Fantasie-Impromptu – five months after surgery:
A recording of me trying to play Chopin’s Minute Waltz 5 months’ after surgery, complete with mistakes:
And about nine months’ after surgery:
I can’t say I ever got full range of motion back. The surgeon said that whatever function hadn’t returned after six months, probably wouldn’t. I had physiotherapy galore, osteopathy, hands-on healing, acupuncture, special nerve supplements, you name it, I had it. But to this day, the arm will only reach so far back over my head when I lie down. There are too many scars and adhesions holding it back. The numbness on my arm and fingers gradually improved, all except for the thumb, a constant reminder of what happened. So there must still be some sort of nerve damage. And all this because I followed the medical profession’s advice and got a mastectomy! How our lives can change in a few minutes!