‘I beat breast cancer – but the treatment side effects nearly killed me

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Despite battling two cancers, vivacious Virginia Harrod hardly missed a beat in her legal practice, on her farm or any of the nightly dinners she makes her 87-year-old mother.

But a common side effect from her double mastectomy surgery nearly did the fast-talking 52-year-old from Kentucky in.

Harrod, an attorney, politician and farmer from rural Kentucky suffered from lymphedema, a condition that occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the arm, causing a skin infection that began to spread to her chest.

After a year hooked up to a constant stream of IV antibiotics – which she carried to court in her purse – and wearing a compression jacket to bed, Harrod thought she would never live a normal life again.

She is among the five to 40 percent of women – including Kathy Bates – who develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery, but among the very few to receive a newly developed lymph node transplant to cure it.

Despite battling two cancers, vivacious Virginia Harrod hardly missed a beat in her legal practice, on her farm or any of the nightly dinners she makes her 87-year-old mother.

But a common side effect from her double mastectomy surgery nearly did the fast-talking 52-year-old from Kentucky in.

Harrod, an attorney, politician and farmer from rural Kentucky suffered from lymphedema, a condition that occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the arm, causing a skin infection that began to spread to her chest.

After a year hooked up to a constant stream of IV antibiotics – which she carried to court in her purse – and wearing a compression jacket to bed, Harrod thought she would never live a normal life again.

She is among the five to 40 percent of women – including Kathy Bates – who develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery, but among the very few to receive a newly developed lymph node transplant to cure it.

‘And I believed him because he was the OBGYN and I was the lawyer,’ she laughs.

But by 2014, she had stage three breast cancer and a tennis ball-sized ductal tumor – the kind that does not show up on mammograms – that had blown through her chest wall.

She was immediately started on a shock-and-awe chemotherapy regimen, taking two different drugs in double doses, but her oncologists had not realized her cancer was chemo-resistant and the tumor only grew with each treatment.

Her regimen was cut back so that she was only receiving chemo treatment on Fridays while Harrod continued to work Monday through Thursday as a prosecutor for the Henry County Attorney’s office.

‘I was getting through the day, but not feeling great. But I’m in politics and I wanted to get re-elected, so it was like “this is how dedicated I am to my job, if you run against me!”‘ she says.

Harrod found a clinical trial at the Dana Farber Institute in Boston that was intended to treat her rare form of cancer, but developed thyroid cancer too, disqualifying her from the trial.

Finally, she and her team of oncologists decided that her breast tissue would just have to go, and Harrod had a double mastectomy.

Things started looking up. Harrod went back to being booked solid from the moderately busy schedule she had kept while undergoing chemo.

Her scans were clear by February 2014, but more than a year later, she noticed her right arm was larger than her left and ‘had a funny blister. I thought it might be hives, but it never occurred to me that hives would be localized.’

At her next appointment, when her doctor saw her arm, ‘he got a horrible look on his face and said: “That’s not hives, that is cellulitis,” Harrod says.

 I was getting through the day, but not feeling great. But I’m in politics and I wanted to get re-elected, so it was like,’this is how dedicated I am to my job, if you run against me!’

Harrod’s doctor explained that her swelling was due to a chronic condition called lymphedema, which left her susceptible to the infection infection.

Lymphedema is a difficult condition to prevent in those that have breast cancer surgery, and is in fact a direct result of preventative measures.

Breast cancer’s first target, if it spreads, is almost always the lymph nodes – ducts that circulate fluids essential to the immune system and flushes out toxins and waste throughout the body – under the arms.

So during mastectomies and lumpectomies, surgeons will usually remove at least a couple of lymph nodes to make sure that they are cancer-free.

But the surgery, coupled with radiation therapy like Harrod received after her operation, can damage lymph nodes, backing up the flow of vital lymph fluid through the body, causing swelling and making it prone to infections.

For many women, lymphedema becomes a lifelong battle even after they have beaten breast cancer. For some, the painful swelling is debilitating.

Harrod says this was not the case for her: ‘Everybody talks about the pain. But I’ve had back issues and migraines and, as a prosecutor, I’m very afraid of narcotics, so I just toughen up.’

 

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