Returning to Diving

Getting back underwater after complex breast cancer surgery




The sleek nurse shark shot out of its lair as we swam by the coral ledge. We followed it along the Key Largo, Fla., reef, swimming through thick clouds of colorful tropical fish. This familiar experience felt extraordinary because it was my first dive after two years of breast cancer, tests, surgeries, setbacks, treatment and reconstruction. Last year some people weren't sure I would ever dive again.

I have been an active diver and DAN® member for 28 years, and I've logged around 2,000 dives during that time, at home in South Florida as well as abroad. Since 2007 I have been a trained buddy assisting Diveheart divers with various or different abilities, never considering that I would one day be challenged myself. When my doctor said, "You have invasive breast cancer" and "You are not a candidate for a lumpectomy," I knew I'd have a long trek back to diving.

The following strategies for getting back into the water after breast cancer (or any lengthy illness) might be helpful to other divers:
  • From the start, let your doctors know you are a scuba diver and you want to get back into diving after your return to wellness.
  • Use your love of diving to lighten difficult moments during treatment. I sat through hours of chemotherapy looking at diving websites on my tablet. During tough MRIs and biopsies, I daydreamed about memorable dives for distraction.
  • Be positive. Attitude is everything. An upbeat nature influences everyone, even your caregivers, and creates a positive atmosphere for recovery.
  • Join a support group for information, sharing, caring and humor. In my groups we laughed more than we cried.
  • Request physical therapy. Along with continued exercise, this was a cornerstone of my recovery. Physical therapy also provides an opportunity to learn about lymphedema and managing your risk of it.
  • Keep your dive buddies. Stay in contact through social media, phone calls, visits and social events.
  • Remember your dive gear that's languishing in the garage. Have it serviced, and do a trial run in a pool before using it in open water. I had to replace my buoyancy compensator, wetsuit, gauges and several hoses. Everything else needed only a tune-up.

My doctors and therapists established benchmarks for returning to diving: completing chemotherapy and treatments, tissue healing, recovery from complex reconstruction and rebuilding sufficient strength and range of motion for diving. My oncologist approved me for diving while I still had a port implanted in my chest.

"Your attitude, enthusiasm and determination to return to diving were a great part of your spectacular recovery," my physical therapist told me. "After your first dive, you quickly moved to another level of wellness."

My reconstruction involved a deep inferior epigastric perforators (DIEP) flap, which is a complex 10-hour plastic surgery and microsurgery to sculpt flaps of abdominal tissue into breasts. Candidates for breast implants require less downtime for recovery — two to three months compared to my six months.

This summer, with my doctor's permission, I dived often, during the day and at night, shallower than 40 feet. I am planning many more dives, including a trip to Tahiti in 2017. My next challenges are returning to deeper diving and to again assist Diveheart divers for their (and my) physical and psychological therapeutic benefit and for the joy of being underwater.
Share Your Story
Do you have tips, advice, travel strategies, dive techniques, lessons learned or other words of wisdom to share with your fellow divers? Alert Diver wants your story! Email it to M2M@dan.org, or mail it to "Member to Member," c/o Alert Diver, 6 W. Colony Place, Durham, NC 27705.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2016