Andrea's blog


TTFF Cahabaque

One of To The Fullest Foundation's first events was a table set up at Cahabaque, which is a fundraiser put on at Cahaba Brewing Company, specifically for breast cancer research with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama.  To the Fullest Foundation was invited to join them as well this year. 

They spent the day collecting email addresses, telling people about who they are and what they're doing, and enjoying getting to hang out together.

Follow and support their efforts here:

Instagram: @tothefullestfoundation

Facebook: To The Fullest Foundation

Tiktok: @tothefullestfoundation


To The Fullest Foundation - Student-Led Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation

My daughter Ayla (currently 15 years old) is part of a newly formed non-profit called "To the Fullest Foundation" -- started by nine young high school women who are working to increase breast cancer awareness and raise funds for treatment research.

The foundation was established in honor of Theresa Hancock (mother of Sara Hancock, the Founder & President of TTFF) who encouraged her daughter to live life "to the fullest" even throughout her illness and battle with breast cancer.

Some of them have already lost far too much in their young lives to breast cancer, yet these ladies are leaning in and using their trials and gifts for a greater good!

Ayla and her best friend Karis are Social Media/Marketing co-Directors of the Executive Committee for the foundation, and while they're all definitely having a lot of fun together, they take their jobs very seriously and are already doing a phenomenal job.

Speaking of social media, we would be honored if you would follow and support To The Fullest Foundation via the links below:

Instagram: @tothefullestfoundation
Facebook: To The Fullest Foundation
TikTok: @tothefullestfoundation


Obviously, the subject matter is very close to our own family, as I am now considered a "Breast Cancer Survivor" (you can read about my full journey through it at that link), so we are particularly proud of the stance and action Ayla has chosen to take on the subject. 


One Last Shot

Before the year ended, I decided to give my elbow one last shot -- quite literally.  Ben came with me to my appointment for a steroid cortisone shot.

The thought is that this could help reduce the inflammation that was created (and hasn't resided completely) from the surgery, which was 6 months ago now.  

While it has finally improved some, it's still tender to the touch, weak, and the joint aches at night and in the mornings.  I'm able to do most things as I was before the surgery without pain, but there is definitely still an uncomfortable "not right" feeling that persists.  I would say overall it is a marginal improvement over pre-surgery and at this point, I'm not certain it was worth all the hassle if it continues to always bother me in some capacity.  We couldn't know that at the time though.

So, before the years ends, I figured, one last shot to see if it'll speed up the process is worth it, and otherwise, I'm moving on and living with it as is.

Update: (1/6/22, two weeks post cortisone shot) I didn't notice much improvement or difference after the shot.  So much for that.  It is not a constant bother, and I'm not painting signs anymore, so that will surely help it have a chance to heal more completely over time.  Meanwhile, I'll just slowly keep building back my upper body strength, with the expectation that it's going to always hurt or be uncomfortable on that arm.  Getting old stinks.


End of an Era - Signs By Andrea

It is with mixed emotions that beginning November 1st, 2021, I am no longer accepting wood sign ordersIt's finally time (and I'm ready) to close up the shop and move on to a new chapter in my work life. I'm looking forward to more time for rest, less personal and physical stress, and having just one job to mentally focus on each week. 

I'm doing my darndest to simplify and minimize to try and keep my body and mind healthy. The stress of the past 5 or so years has taken a toll and I just don't have the capacity I once did. I'm heading into 2022 with a "less is more" mindset...
As of today, all the signs are shipped
I'm very thankful for what Signs By Andrea has been and meant to me and my family over the past 12 years. It's allowed me to work from home with a flexible schedule for nearly our kids' entire childhood, and was far more than a "little side hustle" most of that time. I never expected it to grow like it did, but am honored that well over 10,000 signs that I've made are displayed in homes all across the country (with a few special signs sprinkled across the world).  
I put one of these stickers on every box that went out.  And I think I got my own "sign" that this is the right time and right decision. 
Just after we'd made the announcement that I was "retiring" from painting, I got a call from my storage unit that it had flooded and there was water damage in it.  I was allowed to move anything that *wasn't wood* over to a new unit--any wood pieces had to be removed.  Welp.  The whole reason I HAD that storage unit was to store my wood.  (Yeah...that wood from a fence that I had painstakingly pulled apart and have been dealing with an elbow injury since.)
So...sign clearly recieved.  I took what I wanted to keep out of the storage unit, closed up my account, and left the wood for them to throw away.  That was a little painful. I'm not gonna lie.  But I guess I'm thankful that *I* didn't have to move it all or figure out how to get rid of it.  

So, I finished up my last round of orders with the wood I already had prepped and cut in the garage, and thankfully had plenty to complete them all. 

I did have to turn ordering off a few days early before my sale was supposed to end though.  I had too many orders to be able to complete before we left for our Las Vegas trip...and when we returned, we had scheduled to get new flooring and the exterior of the house painted.  So my office and painting porch were both going to need to be completely dismantled for several weeks.

So, I spent about three weeks here at the end pressing through and painting 5 days a week (a huge increase from the 2.5 days I'd been doing more regularly).  By the time I was done...I was ready to be done.  

These are a few of the last orders I fancy photos, just snapped before shipping.   As always...the custom designs were my favorites. I *will* miss making those.

It's been a good long run.  I'm very grateful for the life this business has given me, and the opportunities it has created for our family.  Thank YOU for supporting me all these years by buying my signs as gifts for family and friends.  It has meant the world.


I'm Not "Fine"

Octobers are going to be interesting.  Let me lament a little bit...I think maybe it'll be therapeutic for me.

While I'm very thankful for the awareness and fundraising and research all the pink brings to Breast Cancer, the truth is that I struggle with seeing PINK everywhere when I'm doing my best (at least this year) to try and put my breast cancer experience behind me and move forward.

The pink bows and pom poms and cute shirts and products are so good for awareness, but the joyful nature of all of it can be a little off-putting to those of us who have been hit directly by it.  It's most definitely a trauma trigger for me, that forces me to pause and reset my headspace, to remember that the pink is there because people care, not because anyone is trying to flash my trauma in front of me at every turn.    

The flood of pink reminds me of all that was taken from me as I tried to maintain as much of "me" as I could while going through treatment. It reminds me that recurrence will always hang over my head.  The pink reminds me of people I know and was close to who died because of this disease.  

When I look at the picture on the left, which was taken last year in October 2020, just after I finished chemotherapy, I want SO BADLY to be more proud of where I am in the picture on the right, which was taken this October.  I want to see "recovered" and "healed" and "whole".  But, instead I see a tired, worn down, hurting, angry, and less hopeful person than I once was.  

The truth is, I was in much better shape both mentally and physically last October than I am this year.  Even though last October, I had just been through 14 weeks of chemo in the middle of the Covid pandemic, suffered through my father passing away from cancer, and caretaking for my mom while she was in the hospital.  What could possibly be harder than all of that, I thought?  

But since that photo was taken last October, my body has now been through three more surgeries, two were cancer-related and one was for my elbow injury (the first was incredibly difficult, the second much easier, and last has not gone as well).  A week does not go by when I don't have a doctor's appointment of some sort to arrange the rest of my responsibilities around.  Every single day is a constant evaluation of how I feel, what I'm capable of, and what I'm NOT capable of. 

The "normal" that I thought I'd be able to return to when all of my treatment was finished just doesn't exist anymore, and I haven't successfully let go of that expectation.  The capacity I have to be involved in all the things and people's lives and activities that I used to be a part of, that brought me joy and gave me purpose, is so significantly and disappointingly diminished.  I just don't have the space for all of it, physically, mentally or practically. It feels like over the past couple of years my world has been forced to shrink considerably down to the bare minimums of health maintenance, work and carting kids around--and I think maybe that's been harder for me to accept than anything else. 

I miss all the extra--the fun, the energy, the excitement, the wonder, the events, the get-togethers, the relationships, and the activities.  Those aren't all gone--you can look at my Instagram and Facebook feed and see that there's plenty of things happening in my life that are fun and social and enjoyable and good.  But my anticipation and participation in them has had to change.  Instead of excited anticipation, I have to "fuel up" and reserve energy and say "no" to a lot of things I'd really like to say yes to.  (Are you familiar with the Spoon Theory?) 

I don't know if that's permanant, or maybe I just haven't recovered yet from all the things and need more time.  Perhaps I shouldn't have expected to be "fine" yet. I just don't have as much bounce in my bounceback as I used to have.  I guess that's normal and reasonable--in fact, I'm sure it is. It's what I'd say to anyone else telling me the same thing.  But internally, it feels like a concession.  Like giving up.  Like being forced to accept myself as less than I think I *should* and *want* to be.  And clearly I don't do that well or happily.  

My body refuses to heal from this last surgery.  My mind is often clouded and cynical--or just numb.  My spirit is tired of fighting and believing and hoping for better.  I spend everyday writing about and encouraging other women to take care of their bodies, to believe in themselves, and in what they can achieve and overcome, and yet, I'm wallowing in disappointment because my body and mind won't cooperate with what I think I deserve and am trying to achieve for myself.

I regularly ignore or get angry at this post it note I leave up in my office, posted right in front of all my upcoming labwork, doctors appointments and paperwork.  

I don't know if I'll ever truly learn the lesson. I haven't yet.

Obviously, "pink" is not my problem...but more what seeing it brings up for me that IS the problem. It reminds me that I don't have as many spoons each day as I used to (seriously, read the Spoon Theory).  It reminds me of all the trauma I've experienced over the past few years, not just cancer related.  And it reminds me of the loss and disappointment that came with all that trauma.

I would love to be the face of encouragement and positivity, fight and success, especially in October--but today, I'm just not there.  Maybe by next October...


I appreciate you reading my lament, listening to my wailing heart, and maybe even relating to some of these feelings.  It's taken me a long time to find the words, name the feelings, and be ready and willing to publicly express how I've been feeling in the aftermath of all of this, so I do it tentatively.  But, it's a continuation of the story I started to share a year and a half ago.  I feel like being transparent and honest throughout the journey might be helpful for someone else, somewhere--and maybe then they can cope better than I've been able to lately!   



14 Week Post Elbow Surgery Update

The short version of the past 8 weeks is that my elbow is still hurting.  While I do have good flexiblity and mobility and decent strength in that arm now, it still hurts in the same places where it did before I had the surgery--only more intensely, and it's a little tender at the outside of my elbow as well. It is slightly improved from the 6-week mark (when I was still wearing a wrist brace), but definitely NOT healed and well. Something in my body is staying inflamed and angry about being poked and scraped and cut and it JUST WON'T CALM DOWN. I'm pretty frustrated and at this point, beginning to regret the surgery, but trying to continue to be patient.  
Thankfully, my energy has significantly improved since the 6-week mark, and after a few days of using Voltaren arthritis cream on my right wrist, I noticed that my entire body felt less inflamed and sore.  I'm thinking that fatigue and exhaustion was an autoimmune Graves Disease response to recovering from surgery and the Voltaren helped calm down all the inflammation I was dealing with.  Since then, I've been feeling much better on that front.
When I saw my surgeon at 12 weeks out, and told him how it had not improved, he suggested resting it again for about a month, trying to avoid activities that irritates it, and really attacking it with anti-inflammatories.  So, for the past two weeks since I saw him, I'm taking 4 naproxen a day (increased from the 1-2 I was already taking) and doing 3-4 applications of Voltaren each day. I've stopped going to PT (so I'm not doing any concentrated exercises using my arms at all) and have tried to let it rest in more of my everyday activities.  That's pretty difficult when I feel it flare up when I am washing my face, washing dishes, pouring water into the coffee pot, emptying the dishwasher, wiping down countertops, holding and turning the steering wheel, opening and closing door handles, writing, painting, typing, pushing a shopping cart, carrying anything with a straight or bent elbow, and pretty much ALL THE THINGS I do all day long. But...I'm trying to "rest" it.  No significant change so far--and my right wrist issues also continue to hurt, though it doesn't seem to be getting worse (or better).  
I'll see the surgeon again in a couple of weeks. He ordered another MRI which showed that there is still some tendonitis in my elbow, which is both discouraging (because it's still there) and validating, because I'm clearly still feeling pain from something.  He suggested that a hand & wrist specialist join the appointment when I see my him next to look into nerve impingement.  He also wanted to suggest some kind of ultrasound procedure, though his assistant wasn't specific about whether that would be another cortisone shot, PRP, or perhaps Tenex -- two of which I've already done, and one of which I asked about before having surgery.  PRP & Tenex aren't covered by insurance based on what they've told me before. 
It feels a lot like starting over at the beginning of this injury.  I've been through physical therapy, lots of anti-inflammatories, tape, needling, massage, a cortisone shot, PRP treatment, more physical therapy, and then surgery, more PT, more tape, more needling, more massage, more anti-inflammatories.  I'm SO TIRED of not having full use of my upper body.  But it's beginning to look like I may just have to learn to live with the pain.
Here's the more detailed journaling week-by-week, which is mostly me whining that it still isn't improving.  But I'll want to  be able to look back later and see how long healing process took, what was actually happening each week, so that hopefully one day I can say it DID finally heal.

Week 6 to Week 7 - Not wearing the wrist brace constantly and knowing that every time my elbow "hurts" it's not because I've done something I shouldn't has definitely helped me mentally not focus so much effort on protecting it and noticing every little pain.  It's definitely still very tender, but strengthening it some during PT and being able to use it more normally without the brace has helped.  My energy has remained low and limited and my brain continues to feel foggy which makes it hard to focus.  I exercised three times this week, but struggled through all three workouts. I rested or only did PT exercises on the other 4 days.  My physical therapist (who is also my brother-in-law) suggested I try some Voltaren arthritis cream on my right wrist to see if that would help calm it down, so I started using that several times a day.  I had a large batch of signs to paint this week, which took me three days to get finished, in addition to my Burn work, and would probably have rather been resting on the couch all week long instead.
Week 7 to Week 8 - I woke up on the first day of the 7th week mark feeling great.  It was like the inflammation in my body had subsided and my brain was clear and everything didn't hurt so badly.  The pain was still there, but it wasn't taking over my entire body and thoughts. My internal dialogue that day was positive and I found myself wanting to check in with friends, make plans and make jokes--NONE of which I had been doing willingly in weeks.  I told Ben that I felt more awake than I had since my surgery.  I've decided it's the Voltaren, reducing the inflammation all over my body, because I continued to feel good, have plenty of energy and feel much more like "normal."  My left elbow is definitely still tender and not as strong as before surgery, but it is less dominating of my every thought and movement.  My right wrist is definitely not "better" and still hurts pretty bad when my wrist is flexed or I touch the spot where it's been hurting, but it is *slightly* improved from what it was.  I think maybe we've turned a corner...
Week 8 to Week 9 - At PT, I've moved up to 6lb weights.  Most of the exercises don't hurt, with the exception of two; bicep curls and extended arm tricep extensions with a band (even the lightest weight band).  I still feel tenderness when I try to press a button with my arm extended, but when I'm washing my face and brushing my teeth it is less noticeable.  At the gym, I'm still avoiding any arm-centric activities. I was able to gingerly use a 10lb med ball this week, but I mostly used my right hand for the lifting. On leg days, I wear a 20lb weighted vest so that I don't have to hold heavy dumbells, and when I hold them, I usually rest them on my shoulders. I did one round of half-burpees in a fully extended plank, but slightly elevated, holding onto a Burn bar (not hands on the ground). I was a little sore after that, but not terribly, so I'm hopeful I can incorporate a little more of that sort of thing, especially because my legs and feet are getting tired!  I was able to sand my own signs last week, which was a big step toward healing.  My energy has been great all week. My right wrist is improving, though it still hurts to the touch and if I were to flex my wrist, but less than it was, so that's good.  I have a few more days left to use the Voltaren cream. I'll be interested to see if my energy and inflammation changes a lot when I've finished the three weeks of 4x daily application.
Week 9 to Week 10 - I still wake up with my left elbow very stiff and sore, and have to be very careful holding or lifting anything of substance.  I have moved up to 7lb weights on PT exercises.  I've finished my 21 days of Voltaren, and while my overall inflammation has definitely been down, unfortunately my right wrist is still hurting pretty badly -- especially after working at my computer.  Sometimes I tape it up to add pressure to it, which makes it feel a little better. I think I have a little bit of numbness in my right ring finger and pinky.  I made the mistake of pushing myself out of the pool last weekend, which hurt BOTH arms and was a terrible idea. But thankfully, it didn't seem to do any residual damage beyond hurting in the moment.  My left forearm muscle is still tender (but improved) and the spot right at my elbow bone is very tender when I press on it while my arm is extended.  Inward pressing (on buttons, closing doors, washing face) still hurts significantly enough that I notice it.
Week 10 to Week 11 - Not much improvement.  I power-washed wood this week for my signs, which was frustrating and discouraging, because the last time I did that was before surgery, and I was hoping by the time I needed more wood washed my elbow would be feeling much better. It's not.  And this is from the same pile of wood that the original injury came from.  So, I'm a little (a lot) bitter toward it already.  At PT this week, Derek started working on my neck and shoulders, thinking maybe some muscle tightness there would be connected to my elbow not completely healing. My body clearly does not know how to relax.  Since I'm not using the Voltaren anymore, I take one or two naproxen each day, which does seem to help with my overall stiffness and soreness and inflammation.  My oncologist said as long as that doesn't irritate my stomach, that was fine to take daily.  I had some additional bloodwork done to check for Rheumatoid Arthritis and any other autoimmune markers, but all came back normal, including my Graves Disease TSH marker, which is great news.  So, it seems like maybe I'm just "normal" old and creaky?  It doesn't really explain the 6 weeks of incredible fatigue and inflammation that I was dealing with.
Week 11 to Week 12 - No improvement in my elbow that I can detect. It's maybe even a little more sore and bothersome.  My PT guy even said, let's wait till you talk to the surgeon again next week before we do anything else and see what he wants you to do next.  I'm pretty frustrated.  I feel pain when I am washing my face, washing dishes, pouring water into the coffee pot, emptying the dishwasher, wiping down countertops, holding and turning the steering wheel, opening and closing door handles, writing, painting, typing, pushing a shopping cart, carrying anything with a straight or bent elbow, and pretty much ALL THE THINGS I do all day long.  It's still far more painful than it was before I had the surgery, and at this point, I'm regretting doing it at all.  Plus, my right wrist hurts like a bear when I do too much with it, but I haven't really addressed *that* problem, because I'm still waiting for my left elbow to get better before I go opening up another can of health issues.

Week 12 to Week 14 - Saw the surgeon.  Had another MRI.  Taking lots of anti-inflammatories (naproxen & voltaren).  Stopped PT and am trying to rest it as much as possible. Not much change.


Elbow Surgery (6-Week) Recovery & Health Update

"You look so good!" 

"I'm so glad you're doing well." 

I hear that sentiment pretty often when I run into friends and acquaintances who know my story.  Then I have to tell them that I'm the "healthiest-looking sick person you'll meet." 

Below is a week-by-week account of the past 6 weeks since my surgery. 
I want to be honest about the struggles of dealing with all these issues, especially when I've been pretty open about the whole process from the beginning. I know I don't cope perfectly and have a lot to learn about stress management (clearly), so please don't consider me an example of "how to get through it." Instead, if you're reading this and following my story, I hope you can see how a person doesn't just get "over and past" big traumatic events and illnesses.  We have to learn how to live with them as part of who we are.  I'm still struggling with that.   
The short of the long is this: My elbow still hurts worse than it did prior to surgery.  My energy levels are extremely low and getting worse, not improving. My mood and motivation and attitude have been waning and declining at a pretty rapid speed.  I have at least 6 more weeks to go before I'll know if it's actually "fixed."
Now you can scroll down to the 6-week evaluation if you'd prefer to skip all my weekly whining and journaling...

Week by Week Healing Process

Lacertus Syndrome Release & Epicondyle Debridement Surgery Recovery

Surgery to Week 1 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7. Physical therapy is only for mobility and flexibility. I've taken occasional tylenol or a pain pill, but not much.  I didn't attempt to work (much) or drive at all.  I had trouble focusing and my brain always seemed fuzzy...especially by the end of the day.

Week 1 to Week 2 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7. I've been doing daily PT and a few short, easy walks in the neighborhood (15 to 35 min). Swinging my arm hurts a little, but once it's warmed up feels ok.  I've taken occasional ibuprophen or tylenol.  I'm having LOTS of nerve pain at the end of the 2nd week, which is in line with the 2-3 week nerve pain I had after my other surgeries too.  I had my stitches removed on day 13, which was uneventful, since they just trimmed the edges (didn't have to pull anything out).  

I am still very tired every day, and completely exhausted both physically and mentally by 5pm, if not before.  I have very little energy or motivation. Everything I do takes extra effort and calculation to use my right arm instead and not hurt or strain my left arm.  I went back to typing and computer work for my Burn job, but doing only the minimal so that I wasn't sitting at my keyboard for long periods of time.  I did one batch of painting signs, with help from Paxton prepping the lettering and then using my right arm for spray painting, and struggling through paintbrush touch ups.  I had to take lots of long breaks and it was very discouraging.  Ben is doing the sanding and hammering for me, and Paxton helped me with shipping. 
Week 2 to Week 3 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7. For exercise, I'm doing daily mobility and stretching PT exercises, plus a few walks (35 min) and lower-impact modified Burn workouts from home -- nothing weightbearing on my arms or holding anything. My left arm is aching and painful. I have trouble resting it on anything because of all nerve pain, which hurts when anything touches that area.  I'm very tired every day, for most of the day. Paxton is helping me prep signs, and I'm able to spray paint with my right arm, and do touch ups with my left hand with LOTS of breaks.  It makes it very stiff and sore though and feels VERY difficult and overwhelming.  Also, the bottom outside bone on my right wrist has been hurting for a while (I think from using my mouse, and maybe holding my phone), but it's getting significantly worse, which makes using THAT hand painful too.  So I end up just sitting and resting instead of trying to accomplish anything that requires my arms or hands.
Week 3 to Week 4 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7. Doing PT two times a week + Burn workouts (very modified) + walks, which equates to about 45 minutes a day, with one day of full rest.  I decided to cut added sugar out of my diet for the month of July to try and help reduce some of my joint achiness and pain.  I also brought back my gallon water jug in an effort to increase my water intake again, which had been difficult to keep up with since I couldn't carry it around with me.  Exercise in the AM helps me throughout the day, but I'm having to talk myself into doing it, which isn't like me.  I wake up hurting all over (aching elbow, screaming right wrist, sore feet, sore left knee), but once my body gets moving, I can get several hours of focus and output (though significantly less than normal me would attempt). By the afternoon my brain gets foggy and I'm tired from pushing to get just the bare minimum accomplished.  Everything takes huge pep talks to make myself go and DO anything.  Errands and small tasks feel completely overwhelming and not worth the effort.  I had to majorly caffienate myself to be at STILL very low-energy output over several 4th of July weekend activities we had planned. They were enjoyable, but took a lot of recovery and even during the events, I found myself struggling to want to be there.

Week 4 to Week 5 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7. Exercise this week has been two days of PT plus a couple of Burn workouts (modified, no arms, less impact).  I didn't exercise at all two days this week. I'm getting very discouraged at how little energy I have. I am still falling asleep by 8:30 or 9pm every night.  Though I'm sleeping well, it doesn't seem to be enough to energize me throughout the day.  I wake up at 6:30 and am able to get a few good hours of chores and work accomplished, but then I end up spending most of the afternoon/evening laying on the couch. And my "good hours" still feel very sluggish, even with full caffiene coffee, which usually gets me moving like an energizer bunny.  We drove to South Carolina this weekend to see my family, and while it perked me up a *little* bit, it was not as much as I had hoped it would. I still have a very limited amount of energy each day and don't trust my energy levels to be high enough to "plan" for anything. Nerve pain has subsided, but my elbow is very stiff and sore in the mornings especially, and still extremely tender to the touch.  I've started being able to gently brush my teeth with my left hand, but pressing on my face to wash it is still too difficult to do without it hurting. 
Week 5 to Week 6 - Wearing the wrist brace 24/7.  I had two days of mobility and flexibility PT plus I did 4 modified no-arms Burn workouts, but I am struggling to get to and through the workouts.  I took three complete rest days this week. I feel so fatigued and have to really slow down all the exercises to be able to keep doing them. Workouts aren't feeling energizing like they normally do for me, but my energy level isn't any higher when I don't do them.
My elbow still feels about the same, significantly worse than pre-surgery still, so it's hard to know whether it's going to be "better".  I still can't lift or hold much in my left arm without pain, though gentle movements and non-weightbearing activities are easier than they were.  It will still ache in the morning and again by the evening. I still have trouble holding the steering wheel for long with my left arm, pressing buttons with the fingers on my left hand, opening and closing the car door, writing with a pen/pencil/paintbrush, etc.  My right wrist has also continued to hurt, though I've tried different mice, changing my posture, and stretching it out.  I ended up buying a second wrist brace to wear on it, which does seem to help calm it down. 

6 Week Evaluation

My elbow has improved since right after surgery, so it IS progressing, even though it doesn't always feel like it. I'm able to USE that arm to type, hold lightweight objects, and it has good and full mobility, especially once it's warmed up. It still hurts more than it did prior to surgery though, where the debriedement was, along the scar, and where the Lacertus band was released and tied to the muscle--so it's hard to tell whether it's "fixed".  Certainly, it isn't fixed YET.  
I saw my surgeon today and explained my varied symptoms and ailments.  He assured me that 6 weeks is about how long we had to wait for the injury to heal from surgery.  But at this point, it should be healed enough that using my arm isn't going to damage the work done.  He said I could stop wearing the wrist brace all of the time, unless I was doing an activity where I was more comfortable having it on, and I could begin to do some strengthening exercises.  He also said it was going to take another 6 weeks to strengthen it and continue healing before we'd be able to know that it was "fixed" and not hurting anymore.
After talking to him, I felt a little better.  
1) I wasn't damaging it everytime it "hurt". I was trying so hard to avoid pain because I thought it meant I was doing too much and damaging the work done to try and make it better.
2) I knew that not having to wear the wrist brace would help me mentally be less hyper-focused on every little ache and pain, which can get my mind spinning in overtime.  Every little ache and pain potentially has more significance and has to have a little more attention when you're on watch for cancer recurrence, so it's best not to get bogged down in normal aches and pains.
3) None of that explains my extreme fatigue and brain fog and aching joints, but I was hopeful that being able to feel more normal "physically" would help me in that department too.
So what's causing the fatigue?  Well, it could be any number of things, but I've really noticed it since this particular surgery.  So I tend to think it's related to inflammation from healing that injury, or mentally and physically adjusting and accomodating for it with every little movement I make all day long.  Since it's really been pronounced AFTER this surgery it makes me think things like my thyroid levels (which have been great for several years) or the Tamoxifen medication I take to help prevent cancer recurrence (which was working fine through the spring with very little side effects) or lingering chemotherapy effects probably aren't the culprit. I felt really pretty good in May and early June before the surgery, while not quite at my 2016 energy levels (or even early 2020), it felt like a normal amount of energy and output for an active 42 year old. 
More and more I'm guessing that my increasing fatigue is connected to situational depression and just a lack of the adrenaline and "fight" that has carried me through the past several years.  If you go back to my Graves Disease diagnosis in May 2018, I've had a LOT of pretty constant stress in my life and have been focused on one health issue or another and trying to get "better" from something for almost 4 years.  While I've mostly bounced back physically and mentally after each event, it's clear that my body doesn't handle stress well and it comes out in the form of inflammation, illness, injuries and fatigue.
Since I've been wearing a FitBit watch for the past couple of years, I can look back at my activity levels and sleep levels and very clearly see the stressful times (both physically and mentally) and how my body has shut down and required more rest and sleep during those times.  But when I'm "out of the tunnel" of those events, I perk up and have so much more daily energy.  To be honest, this graph is kind of a "DUH" result. I'm not sure I learned anything remarkable other than visual support for my fatigue being likely from situational and mental health, not necessarily a hormonal or medical inbalance.  I'll need to do bloodwork to officially rule that out -- and I may still do that.
January 2019 through July 2021 monthly breakdown: I just need an attitude adjustment? Maybe. But more than ever, "muscling through" doesn't just feel impossible, it feels futile when there's always something else lurking around the corner (currently my *right* wrist)--and I guess that's just life. 
Does that mean I need anti-depressants? Perhaps. I'm not opposed, and have taken them before (post-partum), but I've also been through depressive seasons in the past and have pulled back out of them without medication. I hesitate to add another medication to mix with the two hormone-affecting drugs I already take for Graves Disease and cancer prevenion.  
Mostly I am just recognizing that I'm SO TIRED OF FIGHTING to be and feel healthy when it doesn't seem to be working very well.  But...I also fear NOT trying to work on improving these ailments, because it seems like it would make me feel even worse if I don't try to combat them.  So, I'm stuck between the two--give up and accept I'm chronically "sick" with something or press through and "fix" the ailments so I can live life fully and energetically.  The first option feels like defeat. The second option feels unattainable.  
When I feel like this, I want to just escape to an extremely minimalized life with no responsibility or outside stress and obligations.  (A three day trip to the beach, where I completely relaxed and de-stressed once *actually* did the trick and healed some physical ailments I was struggling with.) I also know that when I'm feeling well, the things that feel overwhelming when I'm *not* well are mostly small and minor tasks that I don't even think about doing, so I don't want to let them go--I feel the need to maintain and hold onto those and press through them.  Because when I'm WELL, I like being busy and doing lots of things, and having lots of responsibility.  WELL me gets UNWELL me in trouble because she can't take a REAL break.
I tell people all the time, "you have to be adaptable," but I'm probably the hardest to actually get through to on that front. Because when I tell myself that, what I really mean is adapt until you can be where you want to be, not adapt permanently and accept it as the new normal.  Over time, I've reluctantly released some of my need to be the "me" prior to all my sickness and injuries, but from an outsider's perspective, probably not by a significant amount. Maybe it's time to adapt again and reduce my personal expectations another notch and accept myself at a lower energy and output.  Not gonna lie...that feels like I've lost, and hurts--A LOT.
Or maybe I just need a week at the beach.
Just keeping it real folks...So if my social media feed photos or even seeing me in person at the gym or out to dinner suggests I'm doing great and having fun and feeling well, it's good to remember that might be the ONE moment of that day that I was.  Or maybe I'm not at all and struggled to get there.  Or maybe I am having a good day and feeling well.  You just truly can't judge a book by it's cover.

Elbow Surgery - Golfer's Elbow & Lacertus Syndrome

I thought it had been too long since I had a surgery...

Not really.

But after all my breast cancer treatment and surgeries were complete this spring, I realized that my Golfer's Elbow injury from tearing apart an enormous fence two years ago *still* wasn't any better.

The initial injury...

I've tried physical therapy exercises, dry needling, rest, a cortisone shot, plasma rich platelet injection, a wrist brace, elbow compression sleeves and lots of modifying for daily activities. But it just wasn't going away.

Dry needling efforts...

Compression sleeves and lots of modifications...

Platelet-rich plasma therapy injection...

Wrist brace...

I finally talked to a surgeon a couple of weeks ago, who diagnosed me with both Golfer's Elbow and Lacertus Syndrome.

It turns out the Lacertus Syndrome (a fairly rare condition, often seen in throwing athletes) is an unnecessary band that was restricting the muscle in my forearm and keeping it from expanding when it was exercised. It finally made sense as to why the PT exercises to strengthen my forearm muscles to solve the Golfer's Elbow weren't working.

So...I found myself with another surgery on the calendar (yesterday) to do an epicondyle debridement, to remove unhealthy tissue from Golfers Elbow, and a Lacertus release to remove the restrictive band across my forearm muscle.
The doctors assure me that recovery isn't terrible. (We'll see.) I'll start more PT on Monday and will be in a wrist brace for 4-6 weeks. I'm hopeful this *finally* solves my elbow issues. 
In the meantime I'm going to have to work on becoming ambidextrous. Having your dominant hand restricted is no fun at all! 





Exactly one year ago (on St. Patrick's Day 2020) I received a phone call that stopped me in my tracks and flipped our entire world upside down.  Cancer.  

It has been a long, all-consuming and difficult process, including 5 months of chemotherapy, three surgeries, the trauma of complete hair loss, large chunks of time where I felt physically sick and weak, mentally discouraged, and frustrated at having to put so many things aside to focus on the task at hand.  Whether I wanted it to or not, everything we did for the past year had a wrapper of cancer treatment around it.  I was either anticipating, going through or recovering from some step in the process, waiting for the next appointment and the next unknown.

But as of this week--it's over!  I'm finished.

As I had my stitches removed from my final reconstructive surgery on Monday, I sensed a dark cloud that has followed me for a full year roll away.  The skies above me cleared and I felt like I could finally look up and forward and see life beyond this season.  I cannot adequately describe the incredible feeling of relief that washed over me, and frankly took me completely by surprise.

Ben, my lifelong DJ, suggested I take another listen to the song "Rainbow" by Kacey Musgraves.  I could not keep the tears from rolling down my face as I listened to the words...

As a family (both immediate and extended to all of you who have walked alongside me), we are not left unaffected by this storm-- but we are through it.  Finally.

So today, instead of forever associating St. Patrick's Day with a grim and heartbreaking day that hijacked a full year of my life, I'm able to smile and laugh and look forward to a lighter and brighter future.

And this shirt seemed perfectly appropriate to sum up my year... 



Exchange Surgery, Fat Grafting, & Week 1 Recovery

The short version: 

  • Surgery went well. 
  • Fat-grafting is much more significant recovery-wise than the implant exchange has been so far.  I am still very swollen and sore at the fat grafting donor site and where it was injected, but my new breasts and incisions aren't bothering me much at all other than being a little itchy from the surgical tape.
  • My arm mobility is almost 100%, although I'm intentionally not over-extending or lifting more than 5lbs to allow my incisions to heal. 
  • At one week post-exchange surgery I feel more like I did 4 or 5 weeks after my previous surgery, so it's significantly more tolerable this time around. 

The longer version:

Surgery Day

Ben and I got to the hospital around 6am on Monday, surgery day.  I really wasn't too nervous about the process this time.  Just ready to get it done and put it behind me.  Surgery day itself is pretty easy for me.  I just have to show up.  Everyone else is doing all the work!  

I brought significantly less stuff with me this time, since I would be going straight home afterward that afternoon--basically just the clothes I was wearing, my phone and my Kindle.  I was glad that I brought my book to read while I was waiting back in the pre-op area though, because they didn't let Ben come back there until after I had gotten my IV and talked to the doctor, which was almost two hours after I went back.  So, I guess I was pretty chill since I was casually reading fiction while I waited...

When I talked to my surgeon, he re-explained what we were doing -- exchanging my tissue expanders for silicone implants, pulling both my breasts in just a little bit to have less of a gap between them, removing my port, and fat grafting from my lower back and inserting it into the upper cleavage to soften the edges of the implants, since there was no breast tissue to do that naturally.  I told him I liked the size we'd gotten to with the expanders, but I didn't care so much about what size they ultimately were, as long as they were fairly symetrical and "fit" my body.  I think it's helpful in this process not to have too specific of a picture in your mind of what they will look like finished.  For me, that leaves less room for disappointment, and more likely to be accepting of the final result.

One thing to note (should you be going through this), is the amount of saline in the expanders does not necessarily translate the same number of CCs for the implants.  So, although I had 300cc of saline in each breast in my expanders, I knew in order to achieve the same size with silicone implants, they would likely be a larger number.  I didn't have the opportunity to choose which kind or size of implants I wanted.  I trusted my surgeon to pick the right size based on the way the expanders looked and our conversations.  So, of course my first question when I woke up in the post-op recovery room was "What size implants did he put in?" And I had to ask twice, because I was completely drugged and incoherant and didn't remember the answer the first time.

But, I got my answer:  415cc on the left and 385cc on the right.   The implants I ended up with are Natrelle Inspira SoftTouch SSF by Allergan, which are one step below the highest profile (roundest) option, and described as "smooth, full profile".   It's not uncommon to have two different sized implants in order to make them symetrical.  Since natural breasts are rarely exactly the same size (mine were not), one side might need a little larger implant to match the other.  The size and type of implant is really determined more by your chest width and size of your chest cavity.  I've read stories from other mastectomy patients that said they had 700cc implants and ended up a small C-cup. Clearly 700ccs would make me look enormous, but on someone with a wider chest and deeper chest cavity, it might not be very large at all.  It's also worth noting that the number of CCs of implant used for a reconstruction has a completely different meaning than a breast augmentation, which would be adding the size of the implants plus your natural breast size.  The point is, don't get caught up in the numbers. They mean different things on every person's body.  

But really, beyond collecting that information (and the time...I always want to know how much of the day has disappeared when I wake up from surgery), my main focus was to try and wake up and evaluate my pain levels.

It took me a little while to not feel so groggy, and they let Ben come back with me before too long (the details are fuzzy now).  I do remember having a very dry and sore throat from the breathing tube, and feeling VERY nauseaus.  I threw up several times before we left the hospital.  Evidently that's my typical response to the anesthesia.   I wasn't in too much pain, though I could feel that my chest was very sore, particularly the top portion (where they added fat).  My lower back was mostly numb, so it wasn't bothering me much (yet).  

Once I was feeling pretty alert and had finished throwing up, they let me get dressed and leave--in a wheelchair of course, which I was thankful for, because the walk from my hospital bed to the bathroom was pretty shaky.  

We got home a little before 2pm, and I went directly to bed, propped up on my pillows.  I was able to check my phone and text a few people, but my throat was hurting so bad, and it was hard to swallow and I kept falling asleep.  In fact, I fell asleep sucking on a cough drop.  Thankfully, I didn't choke on it, but it was still there when I woke up an hour later.  I was able to eat some yogurt and scrambled eggs that afternoon, but anything more solid than that was impossible for me to swallow.

When I woke up later in the afternoon, I had a rude awakening.  The numbness on my back was wearing off and OUCH.  Suddenly the soreness there was MUCH worse than my chest.  I took pain pills pretty regularly through the next evening, which definitely helped, but when you can't lay on your side or front, and your back is sore, there's nothing super comfortable.  I ended up piling pillows on top of the wedge pillow, leaving a gap at the bottom so my lower back didn't rest directly on the pillow.  That kind of worked.  But then all my bodyweight was put on my bottom and my tailbone, so eventually that gets sore too.  Getting up and walking around a little bit every once in a while was a good relief.

That evening, I was able to change clothes and take a look at myself and see what kind of damage had been done.  I noticed immediately that my arm mobility was significantly better than it was after my mastectomy surgery.  I had no problem changing my clothes myself, though I did it slowly and gingerly, and though I wasn't going to fully extend, I could lift my arms enough above my shoulders to reach the overhead light switch in our closet, items on the closet shelves, etc.  I saw that my waist was very bruised, a little swollen, and I had two small stitches on my back from where they did the fat grafting.

I'm supposed to wear a bra 24/7 for the next two weeks at least -- maybe longer (hopefully a more normal-looking one than this surgical vest that looks terrible and lumpy under every item of clothing).  My chest is taped up with clear tape, so while I can kind of see what I'm working with (which looks fine--different, but fine), I haven't focused much on what my new breasts will look like until the tape is off and everything settles down and into place. 

I did notice though that my surgeon did not use my mastectomy incisions for the exchange (which were on the sides of my breasts, kind of like sewing darts on a dress).  Instead, he made new incisions below each breast, which explained why I had some dull pain there.  I had assumed he'd use the same incisions, but I guess he decided this was better.  Once they heal, I don't think they'll be very noticable, but I was a little bummed about now having two mastectomy scars, two exchange surgery scars, two drain scars, a port surgery scar, and two new small scars on my back.  That's quite few battle wounds from this year.

Week 1 Recovery

I spent the next several days on the couch during the day and in bed at night, propped up on pillows, and just taking it easy.   

I was still taking pain meds and antibiotics, and so my main job was remembering when to take my meds and trying to avoid the post-surgery and pain pill and lack of movement-induced constipation that is inevitable.  TMI, I know, but it was a huge part of the first week of recovery and is VERY uncomfortable.  I took stool softeners and HerbLax supplements, drank coffee and lots of water, and eventually that worked and I had some relief.  It's also an incentive to STOP taking the pain pills since they cause a lot of that, so by Wednesday morning, I was only taking tylenol for pain.  The pain pills also make me itchy all over, so that was another incentive to quit taking them.

I did lots of reading on the couch, and just trying to be patient and let my body put ALL my energy into healing.  I was surprised at how good I felt compared to the last surgery. Not having drains is a gamechanging difference and were it not for the soreness and swollen feeling from the fat grafting, I think I would have felt amazing right away.  I was able to do pretty basic tasks like making coffee, emptying the dishwasher, and heating up my own food, etc. which were good ways to get me moving around a little bit each day.  Walking around definitely hurt at first, because of the bruising, but each day lessened a little bit, making it easier to move around.  

While the bruising on my back and sides went down and didn't look too bad, my lower back became much more swollen and has stayed that way the rest of the week and has by far been the main focus of this recovery.  It feels like I have a fanny pack attached to my back.  It's numb in some spots, tender to the touch, itchy as nerves come back to life, and my waist feels about 2 or 3 inches wider than it normally is.  I barely notice my incisions from the exchange, but I definitely feel the bruising and tenderness where they inserted the fat on my upper breasts.  I hope the fat grafting "takes" because I'm not interesting in signing up for this part of the process again, which is an option down the road if I'm not happy with the results. I'm gonna have to be REAL unhappy with the results to do this again though.

Thursday and Friday I did some work at my desk in the mornings, and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the couch resting and reading.  Physically, I am definitely tired and moving slower than I normally would, but mostly I'm feeling good.  Mentally, I am doing MUCH better than I was after the last surgery.  I know it'll just take time and I have to be patient, but everything will feel "normal" again eventually.  

By Saturday, I was ready for my first trip out of the house, and went to Ayla's volleyball tournament, here in town.  It was admittedly ambitious, especially since it required quite a bit of walking from the parking lot to the court & back.  But I decided to take a pain pill to get me through it, which was a good choice.  

Sunday, I was able to drive myself to the tournament (no pain pills that day) and sat through several matches as well as lunch at a restaurant with Ben's parents. By the time I got home that afternoon, I was pretty exhausted.  

This week, I expect to be back to a mostly normal workload and daily responsibilities.  I can accomplish most of the things I need to do without too much physical activity, so it'll still be a pretty restful week.  I don't expect to be cleared to exercise for at least 3 more weeks while everything heals and settles into place, so I'll continue to lay low until then.

I'll see my plastic surgeon's nurse next Monday and be able to take the tape off my incisions at that point.  And hopefully the swelling will be down by then? We'll see...

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