A Warrior’s Tale: How I Survived Breast Cancer – and Learned to Live with Lymphedema

Dara Insley PhotoDara Insley was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and subsequently developed lymphedema. She has refused to let it slow her down and she continues to be fashionable by wearing compression sleeves by Lymphedivas. A partner of LBBC, LympheDIVAs compression garments allow women living with lymphedema to control their condition beautifully. The fashionable yet medically correct sleeves and gauntlets are available in a multitude of patterns and colors, including commemorative C4YW designs. LympheDIVAs donates $10 from every C4YW sleeve, $5 from every C4YW gauntlet, and $15 from the sale of each C4YW set to benefit LBBC and YSC’s annual C4YW conference. Here is Dara’s story…

It was within a year of my breast cancer diagnosis. At the end of chemotherapy, double mastectomy (without reconstruction, by choice), an upper lymph nodes removal surgery, and radiation, I realized I had lymphedema.

You might call me “determined.” I don’t typically back down from challenges. Perseverance is a requirement for military spouses, and I’ve always had a positive outlook on life. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I had lost 65 pounds of leftover “baby weight.” Fitness and exercise were my stress relievers during my cancer treatments.

However, lymphedema is a “forever challenge.” It is a lifelong condition that causes swelling and pain in the arm, hand or chest, and most commonly occurs due to the removal of, or damage to, lymph nodes during breast cancer treatment. I must use a combination of physical therapy and compression sleeves to manage my condition daily.

Developing lymphedema is a concern for every breast cancer patient. You survive treatments but live with the fear of getting lymphedema. It is “the gift that keeps on giving.” When I was told I needed to wear a compression sleeve every day for the rest of my life, I knew there had to be something better than the bandage-like, thick, unattractive garment they gave me at the hospital.

It sounds simple, but feeling attractive is so important when dealing with a chronic condition. Luckily, I had heard about LympheDIVAs sleeves, which were not only comfortable and breathable, but also available in beautiful colors and patterns. Attractive attire, even with chronic conditions, can create happiness.

Another element that continues to be critical for my recovery is exercise. For me, it’s more than a physical and mental stress reliever – it’s a form of self-preservation. At 43, I’m in the best shape of my life, but my drive is to try to keep both my cancer in remission and lymphedema in check. Because my form of breast cancer “fed” on estrogen, keeping a very low body fat percentage is essential to keep my estrogen levels down.

I aspire to many goals and dreams. This past June, I placed second in the “Ms. Fitness” category at my first Organization of Competitive Bodybuilders show. In fact, my LympheDIVAs “Damask Bei Chic” sleeve helped with my high-energy, pirate-themed performance! And I have other fitness endeavors planned for my future.

If I could tell my fellow fighters one message, it’s this: No one wants to feel like a patient. Take your treatments seriously, but do what you can to feel in control of your condition. Refuse to wear hospital gowns, if they are not necessary. Wear makeup or clothing that lets you feel beautiful and pretty. Find something, like LympheDIVAs sleeves, to help you with treatment side effects. There is a power of beauty in all of us that will win over the ugliness of disease.

Life is worth the struggle, I always strive to overcome, cope and move forward, and I hope, if you got this far, that you do too. I refuse to let lymphedema slow me down, and I am wishing the same for you.

The author, Dara Insley is an Air Force wife, mother of two, and fitness enthusiast who lives in Cary, North Carolina. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Dara developed lymphedema in June 2010 as a side effect of treatment and lymph node removal. Dara, must use a combination of physical therapy and daily wearing of medically correct compression sleeves to manage the condition. Refusing to let lymphedema slow her down, Dara finds exercise to be both a physical and mental release. She can be seen regularly at the gym and around town, always wearing a coordinating LympheDIVAs compression sleeve. She is an avid runner, weight lifter and yoga practitioner, often exercising for two to three hours a day. At 43, she is in the best shape of her life.

For more information or to register for the upcoming C4WY conference for young women in February of 2014 in Orlando Florida please visit www.c4yw.org

8 thoughts on “A Warrior’s Tale: How I Survived Breast Cancer – and Learned to Live with Lymphedema

  1. I was diagnosed in 2006 with breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy on the right side. Took out 23 lymph nodes. I have not developed lymphedema.. I too have to wear the ugly sleeves. I love lymphDivas. I have gotten 3 different ones so far. I want to order more too. Dara thank you and your husband for your service to the US. God Bless you!

  2. I was diagnosed in 2007 with breast and thyroid cancers. I also was diagnosed in 2008 with kidney cancer. I has a lumpectomy on the right breast and lymph gland removal, also. From 2008 to 2013 I have been cancers free. I don’t have cancer now. I have lymphedema. I have to wrap my right arm with a cotton wrap and three bandages.

    It’s one thing to deal with a cancer. It is quite another to deal with three cancers and a lost voice. The lost voice came about because the surgeon used me as a teaching tool for student surgeons. So, with feeding tube in gut, a whistle for a voice, and my pink cap, I faced 2008.

    Now in May of 2013, I have lymphedema. There is no such thing, I believe, as being cancer free because it has residual effects. Effects I cannot control, cannot cure, and cannot fix. I wrap, I exercise, I do the manual drain and wait for December. I’m hoping to get my first lymphaDiva set to wear proudly to the world at that time. It just goes to show that I cannot live “in the it’s over thinking” that others fall into. I exercise, pray, talk to friends, and look at all of this as a miracle. I am alive to complain, choose, disbelieve, or grouse as each day passes. That is more than many, many others have.

  3. Hello! I’m glad that your blog, Living Beyond Breast Cancer, is both an organization and a blog to help empower women who have breast cancer. It tackles difficult topics and newsworthy notes while offering everything from healthy recipes to poetry. And from all the blog posts I’ve read in your blog, I retained that when cancer comes over your house, it gives you hard time before it leaves you alone. Difficult treatments, interventions, chemotherapy, etc. will bother not only you, but your entire family as well. So even if you finally win the fight against it, from what I’ve heard and read about Breast Cancer, you will be living with its memory for the rest of your life.

  4. I had a lumpectomy last fall. My surgeon keeps telling me that I do not have lymphedema, i.e., no swelling. I do exercises every day but I have arm pain everyday which has now radiated out to my back, especially when I breathe in and out. This has been going on for 2 weeks or more. I actually went to the e.r. recently and was given an ultrasound. Showed no fluid. I am no sissy but the pain is real! Anybody experiencing the same?? Would appreciate any positive feedback. Thank you and God bless

    • The pain in your arm could be from multiple sources: for example nerve damage from surgery; lipedema that may be triggered by hormonal changes (lipedema is a fat growth disorder that can affect upper arms – but most commonly involves legs & hips – see Karen Herbst, MD for more info and resources). Search at Institute for Functional Medicine for a Functional Medicine practitioner in your area, and seek out an occupational therapist who works with breast cancer survivors. May the Force be with you!

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