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Living With Lymphedema: June 2, 2011

Many cancer patients may find themselves dealing with a lifelong side effect.

Lymphedema is extreme swelling that comes as a result of lymph node damage. It can show up at any time.

Sandy Hawkins introduction to lymphedema came as a complete surprise.

“Well, it was an unpleasant surprise,” says Hawkins. “I woke up one morning in January and my whole upper body was swollen.”

Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is disrupted. If fluid can’t get to the heart, it pools up, causing the swelling.

“ And, of course, there’s the psychological implications,” Hawkins says. “It doesn’t feel very nice to look in the mirror and see all that.”

Sandy reached out to a certified lymphedema therapists to help her manage the swelling in her arm.

“We teach manual lymph drainage which is a massage technique,” says Jackie Speas, a lymphedema therapist with Lee Memorial Health System. “It redirects the fluid to parts of the body that do not have edema.”

Therapists also teach patients how to keep their condition under wraps.

“We’ll also do compressive wrapping,” Speas says. Which we use short stretch bandages and actually wrap the extremity to reduce the edema.”

Once the swelling is under control, the challenge is to keep it that way. That generally requires wearing compression garments.

“We ordered these sleeves and gauntlets which are the hand part. I tried the gloves but wasn’t happy with that so these gauntlets are much easier to use daily.”

While there is no cure for lymphedema, there is also no reason to live with the swelling. For patients like Sandy, the work is worth the effort as she’s regained control of her life and limbs.

“Younger children tend to be more susceptible because their airways are smaller,” says Summe. “Their immune systems are not as developed.”

A new study shows one in three asthmatics haven’t been taught how to respond to an attack. Making it especially important to begin early education.