Channeling Michael Jackson

The Glove

I had just returned from taking my children on our every-weekday run to the school bus stop. We had the radio on, not to my usual NPR station but to my son’s favorite “warm” music station and the tune that came on as I pulled back into the garage was Michael Jackson’s hit of 1983, “Beat It,” a song whose lyrics I’d never really listened to until this morning.

So I had my “garage moment,” as others have their “driveway moments” — those moments you stay in your car listening because the story (or in this case tune) on the airwaves captures something in you.

And so it was with MJ this morning, and I did my driver’s seat dance.

The song has a great beat, bass line and guitar solo (compliments of Eddie Van Halen). Never mind that it’s advice to a kid trying to work up the courage to face his bullies:

They told him don’t you ever come around here
Don’t wanna see your face, you better disappear
The fire’s in their eyes and their words are really clear
So beat it, just beat it.

MJ was never at the top of my list of favorite artists, but I appreciated his talents, especially — having been a dancer once upon a time — the dancing. (I admit, though, that I have never quite understood the allure of the zombies-in-the-graveyard scene in Thriller.)

My daughter never liked Jackson, thought he was “creepy,” but she only knew the Michael of the later era, not the cute, wide-nosed version who sang “Rockin’ Robin.” On the day Jackson died, we teased her that her favorite singer was gone. In response, she rolled her eyes at me.

So now here I am, writing this at the counter in my kitchen because, from beyond his grave, Michael is reminding me to finish the project I started more than a year ago.

Here is a picture of a glove I own.

GloveUgly, don’t you think?

Those of you who have seen, or own, such a thing know this is no ordinary glove.  It’s a compression glove, made of strong, highly elastic fabric, custom designed in Germany.

Yep, ugly. That’s precisely what I thought when I brought it home about 2 years ago, and its presence in my house depressed me for awhile. You see, this is the glove that I will have to wear periodically to combat the swelling that occasionally appears in my left hand. This swelling, known as lymphedema, is the result of the removal of about 23 nodes from under my left arm during my surgery for breast cancer.

Lymphedema is not related only to cancer surgery or only to the arm. It can occur in anyone whose lymph system is disrupted anywhere in the body. About 8% of women develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery, and the risk increases with radiation therapy.

Twenty-three seems like a lot of nodes, but since no one knows how many any of us has, we have no way to gauge the damage done by their removal. I once read a report of a woman who had 66 nodes removed. Herein lies yet another mystery of the human body.

The overall surgical procedure for someone with breast cancer has changed drastically over the years, from the mandatory radical mastectomy, which my grandmother had for a pea-sized lump, that removes all breast tissue and much of the underlying muscle to the lumpectomy of today, which takes only the lump and a small portion of surrounding tissue.

But even for a lumpectomy, the surgeon always checks the nodes if there’s any hint that the cancer has started to spread. Maybe the nodes “light up” on an MRI scan, or maybe they’ve actually started to expand enough to be felt physically, as did one of mine.

The nodes need to be delineated before surgery so that the surgeon can find and remove them, and this tracing involves a rather unpleasant procedure in which a technician injects dye into the lymph system of the breast through a needle inserted into the nipple. (Overall the surgery is probably worse, but at least you’re asleep during that.)

The dye traces the path of the lymph nodes to the outer edge of the breast and up into the armpit, and the first node in the path is known as the sentinel node. It’s only been in the past couple of years that doctors decided it was enough to remove only the sentinel node for testing rather than a whole batch of them. If the sentinel node is clear, no other nodes are removed. If it’s not, the patient is scheduled to have chemotherapy.

But it doesn’t matter if it’s just one node, or 23, or 66 that are removed. Along with permanent numbness under the arm from nerves that are severed during surgery, you are now at risk for developing lymphedema because the lymph system is disrupted.

As it is with everything else related to cancer, whether you develop the swelling depends entirely on the individual. Some of us may never be bothered. Some can suffer debilitating bouts of it, even though only a few nodes were removed. (Those of you who like to scare yourselves with the worst-case scenario can look up lymphedema on the Internet and see graphic photos of extreme cases.)

And it can show up at any time — 2 days, 2 months, or, in the case of one woman I know, 12 years later.

In my case, it was almost 2 years past surgery. We had been traveling and I noticed some slight swelling on the outer side of my left hand. The swelling disappeared about a week later, and I decided it was perhaps the effects of the air travel, even though I’d never before had trouble with swelling when traveling. When it reappeared and crept up into my fingers, I realized with sudden sadness what it was.

That’s the thing about cancer. You can beat the disease but there is always the aftermath, and it often seems that it never ends. So even though the swelling was slight, its occurrence plunged me once again into a very dark place, and the confidence I’d gained, almost 2 years on, blew away like leaves on the wind.

It’s at these moments that you must begin again, simply because there is nothing else you can do.

The oncologist confirmed that the swelling was likely lymphedema, the trigger for it unknown. (The experts say it can be anything that stresses the lymph system, from a mosquito bite to air travel.) He sent me to a therapist who specializes in treatment. She had been trained in Germany, where the study of lymphedema is far advanced over ours here in the U.S.

After massaging the hand, arm and chest, the therapist carefully measured my hand — across the palm and the back of the hand, along each segment of each finger — to write up the order for the glove. Over the course of 6 weeks or so, with ongoing massage and the procurement of two gloves (the first one returned because it turned my fingers purple) the glove and its matching sleeve, which is to be worn in tandem to keep lymph flowing throughout the arm, the swelling surprisingly disappeared.

And so I took off the glove, and gladly put on my wedding ring again. I assumed I’d beaten it, and I would occasionally see the glove lying listlessly in my drawer and think, “Ha HA! Never again.”

But the mind plays us for the fools we are. It lets you think that, once you’ve faced the danger, once you’ve paid the dues, you won’t have to do it again. So what if the glove and sleeve together cost about $600? I was happy to see that version of money lying uselessly in my drawer.

But then, last week, I turned my hand just so, and felt that painful pull in the skin, this time on the inner side over the knuckle of the index finger and toward the thumb. There were also the transient aches and twinges in my arm that told me the lymph fluid was getting backed up again.

The mental plunge was not as deep this time because now I had the wisdom of experience. I didn’t run to the therapist, didn’t even call my usual massage therapist, who is also trained to treat lymphedema.  I massaged the area myself in the way the therapist had shown me — clearing the lymph nodes in my groin first, then stroking down the side of my body, then down my raised arm, to send the stuck lymph fluid past the scars of surgery and into the larger nodes near my hip.

And I reluctantly retrieved the glove from the bottom drawer, where it lay hidden beneath some slips and old pajamas.

The swelling is once again dissipating with the help of the glove and some surprising activities, like writing comments on student essays. I am left-handed, and the fine motor movement of writing is helping to pump the lymph fluid out. At last, I’ve found a tangible use for grading papers!

In my first bout of swelling, when I thought I’d be wearing a glove every day, I dreaded having to explain to people why I was wearing that ugly old thing. So I decided I’d disguise it, do something to either deflect attention from it or call it into the limelight because of its style.

And then I thought of Michael.

Yes, you know it. That glove of his was my inspiration.

I can’t afford the Swarovski crystals, but some fabric paint, a glue gun, and some cheap rhinestones are a pretty good imitation.

WARNING: Decorating a compression garment like this, even with the artistic touches contributed by your daughter, will void its warranty, and make it less functional.

Michael — you did us all a disservice with the drugs that took you away too soon. But your music has inspired me now to finish my work. Your song is about running away from bullies. My glove is about standing up to them.

Just beat it.

Beat It

Beat It (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

10 Responses to “Channeling Michael Jackson”

  1. Beverly Says:

    I think about how hard it is when I notice my body deciding it will work differently, even with the smaller issues I deal with. I am quite a wimp. So I truly appreciated how you explained about all your confidence blowing away like leaves in the wind.

    It’s hard to come back from a dark place. But when you do, you inspire the people around you. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. lat Says:

    Fortunately for me, I have not had any issues of this kind, but I have seen women in my once-a-month Restorative Yoga for breast cancer patients at the Cancer Support Community struggle with such simple movement due to this cancer treatment “side-effect”.

    It helps to witness how some struggle with lymphedema in order to realize (first, how lucky am I!) that cancer and the aftermath can look so different from person to person. It also demonstrates the many levels of battle that cancer can present and the courage and determination of those who fight to regain as much of a “normal” life as possible. Also it becomes quite clear that life will never be the same “normal” after cancer. How ironic that “life” after cancer is no longer refered to as “Life”, but as “survivorship”.

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      And I have been lucky too. So many people struggle with so much more. A friend’s nurse said it’s so hard to see people beat the disease and then struggle with the aftermath.

      I have trouble with that term “survivor” too, and you nailed it. Everyone is a survivor of something, and yet we tend to use that term only for those who have had cancer. But then we trivialize it with a TV show.

  3. The Accidental Amazon Says:

    Love this. Must be in the zeitgeist because I just read another post on LE. Meanwhile, I seem to be having a revisit from LE’s cousin, axillary cording, caused entirely by radiation & breast surgery, since I had no nodes removed. Always something. Hang the glove warranty — I love the bling. Kathi

    • Julie Yamamoto Says:

      Thanks for your comment! I had some cording too, but massage and acupuncture seemed to help.

      • The Accidental Amazon Says:

        I’ve been lax on my stretching & shoulder exercise lately…that’s why it’s back. Got to resume my ‘homework.’ :)

      • Julie Yamamoto Says:

        I hear you! Seems there’s always more “homework.” I try to do things to support my health, but if I did everything I’m supposed to every day, I’d never do anything else. And then there’s that problem of tedium.

  4. Suzanne Tereski Says:

    You are truly inspiring Julie. Miss you and I will be different because of you! Thank you for sharing something so personal with the rest of us.
    Suzanne Tereski


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