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Examiner
  • Living with lymphedema

  • Lymphedema may not be a familiar condition to you, unless you or someone you know has gone through cancer treatment. But for those who have lost lymph nodes, had radiation, chemotherapy or surgery, the condition can cause life-altering effects.

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  • Lymphedema may not be a familiar condition to you, unless you or someone you know has gone through cancer treatment. But for those who have lost lymph nodes, had radiation, chemotherapy or surgery, the condition can cause life-altering effects.
    Your lymphatic system is crucial in keeping you healthy. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body, collecting bacteria, viruses and waste products. Your lymphatic system carries this fluid of wastes through your lymph vessels to the lymph nodes. Here, wastes are then filtered out by infection-fighting cells that live in your lymph nodes (lymphocytes) and flushed from your body. The lymphatic system also drains excess fluid and absorbs lipids (fats) from the intestine.
    Lymphedema occurs when your lymph vessels are unable to drain lymph fluid, typically from an arm or leg. This is called secondary lymphedema and is far more common than primary lymphedema which is mostly a rare, inherited condition caused by problems with the development of lymph vessels in your body. Primary lymphedema occurs most frequently in women, although I have a male patient with this disorder.
    The secondary form is often the consequence of surgically removing lymph nodes in the armpit or groin, or through damage caused by radiation therapy. Lymphedema can also be caused by tumor pressing on lymphatic vessels. An infection of the lymph nodes can also restrict the flow of lymph fluid and cause lymphedema.
    Lymphedema can be very debilitating, causing swelling in parts or the whole leg or arm, including fingers or toes. Some people may find it difficult to wear jewelry, watches or fit into clothes or shoes. Other symptoms of the affected area can include:
    n Loss of range of motion or mobility
    n Pain and discomfort
    n Tingling sensations in the affected limb, much like pins and needles
    n Recurring skin infections
    n Blisters or wart-like growths on the skin
    n Severe fatigue.
    For a therapist, it is the infection aspect that is the most troublesome. Waste the body can’t get rid of can cause cellulitis which is a common, but potentially serious bacterial skin infection. Cellulitis appears as a swollen, red area of skin that feels hot and tender and it can spread rapidly.
    For patients, the mere swelling and discomfort of lymphedema is a constant reminder of their cancer ordeal. What’s to be done? Like many therapies in medicine, prevention is often the key.
    As a lymphedema therapist, I want my patients to be as much the same person after a loss of lymph nodes to cancer treatment or other illnesses as they were before. This is done through a variety of assessments and education that takes place prior to surgery. Post-operatively, we work on what I call self management “tools” for the patient.
    Page 2 of 2 - Compression garments - I’ve spent many years fitting mastectomy and other prostheses for cancer survivors. These garments, properly fitted for troubled areas can control swelling and discomfort.
    Self-manual lymph drainage - (Massage techniques) stimulating healthy lymph vessels and lymph nodes can assist in re-routing the lymph flow around blockages into nearby healthy lymph vessels and nodes. This is achieved with specific stretches and manipulations.
    Skin care - This is something even healthy people often ignore. Your skin is the largest organ of your body and the first line of defense against bacteria and other pathogens. Defects in the skin from dried, chaffed skin can provide an entry to germs and such that cause infections. Your skin needs hydration through moisturizers and water consumption.
    There are also home exercise and wellness components to living with lymphedema that, I believe make a great difference. It’s also important to note that cancer surgery has become more conservative and targeted when it comes to removing lymph nodes. But, when there is a loss, patients need to know there is help and it does work.
    Kay Laurent is a Physical Therapist and Certified Lymphedema Therapist at St. Mary’s Medical Center. She can be reached at 816-655-5716.
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