Tuesday, 14 May 2013


Like many women who have had breast cancer, I have had a Lymphadenectomy - the removal of all of the lymph nodes in my armpit. This operation, performed only a fortnight after mastectomy, posed one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. During the mastectomy one lymph node of the 12 removed showed positive for cancer and I was advised to undergo a full lymph dissection. This would involve going back in through my very recently (and beautifully) healed mastectomy scar to remove every last node in my armpit. I felt reticent about compromising such an important part of my detoxification system, but also anxious about potentially leaving cancer within my body. I made a decision rooted in fear and it's one that I regret, particularly because I've since learned that the primary reason for removing lymph nodes is for diagnostic purposes, and I had already decided that I would not be having chemotherapy. 

The surgeon did not in fact use my mastectomy scar, but went in through my armpit, creating a 5 inch horizontal scar which has caused much pain and discomfort. (You can elect to have a 'frozen node biopsy' which obviates the need for a second operation, but this was not available at my hospital). Removal of the lymph nodes often creates 'cording', a painful tightening of vessels in the armpit which leads to restricted movement of the arm. There is also a risk of lymphoedema, a dangerous and sometimes irreversible build up of lymphatic fluid in the arm, which thankfully I never experienced. (I regularly visited a lymphatic drainage specialist after surgery to 'create' pathways for my damaged lymph system to drain into). There was no sign of cancer in any of those further 22 removed lymph nodes. Great news for my prognosis, not such great news for my lymph.

Every cell in our body is bathed in lymphatic fluid. Toxins, cell debris, viruses and bacteria are drawn into the fluid, and transported via the lymphatic system (a network of thin-walled vessels) into lymph glands. These outposts for the immune system exist throughout the body, and contain high levels of white blood cells, macrophages and lymphocytes, which destroy or remove toxins. Other organs like the thymus, appendix, tonsils and spleen are also part of the lymphatic system. Unlike blood, the lymphatic system has no pump, instead it relies on movement of the body. A sluggish lymph makes for a sluggish immune system, which in turn leads to toxic build up within the cells and the intra-cellular fluid.

The purpose of sweat glands in our armpits? To expel toxins from the lymph. The purpose of anti-perspirant deodorants? To stop that sweat from coming out through the skin. The result? Toxins are forced back into the lymphatic system. This is particularly bad news for breasts, which, due to their fatty nature and proximity to the armpit, often end up as a dumping ground for toxic by-products, which the body would rather have eliminated through the natural process of sweating. As tissues become more and more toxic, acidity levels rise, oxygen levels reduce and the potential for cells to mutate into cancer cells increases. 

Even deodorants (as opposed to anti-perspirants) are dangerous, as many contain aluminium, which blocks pores, again, impeding the natural movement of toxins out through the skin. As well as being chemically laden, spray-on deodorants cause harm to the lungs as micro-particles are breathed in (particularly in the often humid environment of the bathroom).

But we don't have to give up deodorant entirely (although from personal experience I can vouch that the cleaner the diet, the less smelly the armpit!!) There are great aluminium free options out there, from crystals to roll-ons. I like Urtekram's organic rose roll-on, which works even on the hottest days (sweat is actually odourless, and only smells when microbes oxidise on the skin).

And there's more bad news for the lymph. Bras, particularly underwired ones, can also impede the lymphatic system, building pressure, creating blockages and increasing toxic build up within breast tissue. 'Dressed to Kill' by Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer makes for interesting reading. They did a study which showed that the rate of breast cancer amongst bra-wearing Maori women is the same as in Western countries, while Aboriginal women, who predominately go bra-free have practically no breast cancer. The same is true for 'westernised' Japanese, Fijians and other 'bra-converted' cultures. Take time to go bra-free. Avoid under-wiring, and never wear a bra to bed. 

There are ways to improve lymph flow - exercise, dry brushing, rebounding (trampolining), hydrotherapy (switching the water from hot to cold and back again in the shower) and using a FAR infrared sauna all work beautifully. On rising in the morning swing and stretch your arms out behind and to the side four or five times to kick-start lymph circulation. 

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