Imagine hearing the words, “You have breast cancer.” These are words many women so unexpectedly hear…

Those dreaded words bring so many things to mind. Complex feelings, many uncertainties, and so many questions. Then, almost immediately, you’re presented with information. . . . so much information it can be completely overwhelming. Your time is occupied meeting with physicians and hearing words you may have never heard before. You’re presented with different procedures and treatment options, none of which sound good at all. Before you know it, you’re in an operating room, undergoing a biopsy or preparing for major surgery. It’s no wonder the long-term impacts and your life ‘after cancer,’ are not yet concepts you can wrap your head around.

However, I’m here to tell you: THERE IS LIFE AFTER BREAST CANCER! Every woman’s journey is different, but I’ve seen firsthand the strength and determination of each of my breast cancer patients.

As an occupational therapist, I specialize in cancer (or oncology) rehabilitation. I used to be just as scared of the BIG “C” word as the rest of the general population, so I didn’t set out to focus on this area of therapy. However, once I became certified to treat the most common complication of breast cancer, lymphedema, I was immediately faced with trying to help woman after woman through her journey of confronting breast cancer head on. I knew, without a doubt, that I’d found the specialty I was meant to practice.

When I first began seeing breast cancer patients for lymphedema, I realized I needed to learn SO MUCH MORE to help these brave women. They came to me with more than just surgical scars and pain. They came with more than arm swelling and range of motion issues. They came with more than physical changes to their bodies. They came with so many questions they were uncomfortable asking their doctors. They came with physical side effects and emotional scars from this life-altering diagnosis. They wanted a road map for navigating through this unwanted journey, and they entrusted me to help them get their lives back and live life to the fullest!

Every therapist dreams of the privilege and pleasure of treating a motivated patient willing to do anything to get better. A patient who comes to therapy and says, “I just want my life back!” That is EVERY breast cancer patient I’ve ever worked with. They just want to get back to living their lives. They didn’t ask for cancer. They DO NOT deserve to have cancer. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to be healthy, happy, and get back to enjoying life. They need answers to the thousands of questions running through their heads: “When can I pick things up again? How high can I reach? Can I work out? When is it safe to resume activity? What about my intimate relationships; how will that change? Can I go back to work? How long will I have these expanders in? When will I be able to JUST LIVE MY LIFE WITHOUT QUESTIONING EVERYTHING?” The list goes on and on.

A decade after beginning to specialize in cancer rehab and hundreds of hours of continuing education courses later, I still wouldn’t know a thing about treating breast cancer patients were it not for all the patients who’ve trusted me along the way. All the brave women who’ve removed their shirts to show me their scars, their breast implants, and dog-ear scars from multiple revision surgeries, have taught me so much; all the women who’ve come to me with pain and the inability to fully use their arms who graciously allowed me to help them; ll the women who’ve been brave enough to confide in me about how the changes to their bodies have impacted their marriages and caused them to feel betrayed by their own bodies.

There is SO MUCH MORE to a diagnosis of breast cancer than just surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. While those physical agents treat and usually cure the cancer, they don’t return life to someone scarred by the diagnosis.

As an occupational therapist, I take a global approach to treating my patients. During my assessments, I find out what in life matters most to my patients, what’s limiting them from fully engaging in life, so we can get them back to living their lives in the most holistic way possible. I ask questions like:

  • What could you do before your diagnosis that you can’t do now? Pick up your children or grandchildren? Care for yourself? Go to the gym or work? Cook dinner, do housework, go shopping?
  • Do you stop yourself before engaging in activities because you’re scared of hurting yourself or are you unsure what you’re “allowed” to do because of fear of developing swelling?
  • Do you have scars that are sore and painful, or tightness when you move your arms?
  • How are your relationships? Have they changed as a result of your diagnosis? Are you worried about engaging in sexual relations because of the physical and emotional changes to your body?
  • Do you have any swelling? Any sensations of tightness, fullness, or heaviness of your arm, chest, or breast?
  • Do you wear the same clothing you did prior to your diagnosis? Do you wear makeup and earrings or has the neuropathy in your fingers changed that?
  • Do you feel like you have the energy to do all the activities you want and need to do in a day, or do you feel like you’ve aged decades since your diagnosis?

Some of these questions seem so personal, but the answers help me know what’s important in my patient’s life.

If you have breast cancer, your diagnosis does not have to define you. But you’ll NEVER be the same. You’ve likely already been through so much. You’ve geared up for the fight of your life, endured too much and come too far to stop short of getting back to living the life you’re fighting to keep. DO NOT give up!

The next time you look in the mirror, remember that you are still YOU…but a stronger and braver YOU!

Kelly Uanino, OTR/L, CLT-LANA, is a registered and licensed occupational therapist specializing in oncology (cancer) rehabilitation with a certification in the specialized treatment of lymphedema. She is a co-owner and a treating therapist at Be Strong Therapy Services. Be Strong Therapy has an individualized road map to help you through your breast cancer journey.