This is a guest post that I did for the blog “Nancy’s Point” … I feel it is important to repost it to continue to build awareness and understanding of the problems associated with Lymphoedema. Nancy writes a wonderful blog on her experience with Breast Cancer and as we know Lymphoedema can be a side effect of Breast Cancer treatment. In fact Lymphoedema can be a side effect of any cancer treatment where lymph nodes are removed. There is also Primary Lymphoedema where people are born with a weakness in their lymphatic system, issues can arise at birth or later in life. Lymphoedema is often misunderstood and the impact on quality of life is often unknown. I hope this post brings better understanding.
It is not just a bit of swelling! Lymphedema
I am very excited to have been invited by Nancy to write a guest post on Lymphedema, as March is Lymphedema Awareness Month. Approximately 10 million Americans and 100 million worldwide suffer from Lymphedema, as stated by the Lymphatic Education and Research network this year, but there is still much ignorance, misdiagnosis and misunderstanding around this condition. In this post I will be writing about Secondary Lymphedema but we should also acknowledge those with Primary Lymphedema who were born lacking important Lymph Nodes in parts of their bodies. Even though so many people suffer from Lymphedema, few know about it, unless they have it themselves or know someone.
My journey with Lymphedema started at the end of my treatment for Uterine cancer 12 years ago and like many, the removal of Lymph nodes and follow-up radiation destroyed part of my lymphatic system, leading to swelling, discomfort, pain, lack of mobility and infections. I remember seeing my surgeon before my radical hysterectomy, I was concerned over the removal of the lymph nodes, as I felt I still needed them!! His response was, ” It is better than being dead!” Needless to say that was the end of that conversation. During surgery I had 22 nodes removed in the groin area and 28 sessions of pelvic radiation. The Lymphedema came up as soon as I finished treatment. We have between 600 and 700 lymph nodes in our body, but when crucial nodes are removed, (radiation and surgical scarring also destroy the surrounding lymphatic vessels) fluid will collect in the limb and cause Lymphedema.
Three litres of fluid a day is removed from the tissues via the lymphatic system and passed into the circulatory system. The lymphatics are the “garbage disposal system” of the body with the lymph nodes acting as a “Cleansing system,” purifying, filtering, destroying bacteria and toxins. It is however, sadly the way that cancerous cells spread to other parts of the body, hence their removal during treatment. The lymphatics are an important part of the immune system and removal of nodes leaves one vulnerable to infection in that area. Unlike the vascular system the Lymphatic system requires the movement of muscles to push the flow of lymph through the body, there is no heart pumping as in blood flow.
When my leg first started to swell I was really scared, it felt like a tree trunk, heavy, uncomfortable,unsightly, my normal clothes would not fit and I felt self-conscious. Fortunately a friend told me about a workshop that was being held at Westmead hospital in Sydney. There I found much-needed help, a rehabilitation hospital, Mt Wilga in Hornsby, that specialised in treating Lymphedema. There followed five weeks of Complex Bandaging, Manual Lymph Drainage and Laser. My leg was thickly bandaged like having a plaster cast on. These were removed only to shower, which I did at the hospital, I drove each day from home for this treatment. At the end of five weeks my leg had reduced in size to just a little bigger than my good leg. I was then measured for a compression garment, from waist to ankle on the bad leg and to the knee on the good leg, a real passion killer!! I felt miserable. However over the years I spent a great deal of time walking in water which really helped the swelling, as it acts as a natural compression. Exercise is essential to help the lymphatics, as they need movement to function, elevating the leg whenever possible, raising the end of the bed all helped and eventually I was able to convert to just a compression stocking on the bad leg. Importantly when ever I fly however I wear compression tights to protect both legs from further damage. Though I have never done it myself yoga is very good for helping Lymphedema.
This would have all been manageable, but I experienced repeat infections, even though I was very careful to look after my leg well. These infections called Cellulitus, caused by the lack of “cleansing” nodes, would come up in half an hour and require a trip straight to hospital for intravenous antibiotics for ten days. Needless to say this impacted on my work and home life but we managed. That was until 2010 when an infection spread to my heart and I was diagnosed with Pericarditis. Fluid was removed from around the heart and I had four weeks of strong antibiotics via a PICC line, as it is almost impossible to find a good vein in my arms due to previous treatment.
After this I started to look for alternative treatments for the Lymphedema. Something that would maybe cure the Lymphedema or lessen the infections. I found out about Dr Corrine Becker, who pioneered Lymph Node Transfers in Paris, and sent her an email to ask if any Doctors in Australia did this surgery. She had trained many doctors in the US and elsewhere but not Australia. I continued to send out emails to the various Lymphedema specialists. One day a reply came inviting me to join a research program at Macquarie University Hospital in Sydney, started by Prof. Boyages, who is a Breast cancer specialist. As is the case overseas much of the research into surgical intervention for Lymphedema is funded by the Breast Cancer community, due to the high incidence of Lymphedema in the arms of patients after treatment for Breast cancer. He and other doctors wanted to find a way of helping patients with arm Lymphedema. They realised that this was not just about a “little bit of swelling”, but a life changing side effect of treatment that was affecting patients, mentally and physically, as well as becoming a financial burden for the rest of their lives. In some cases surgery is now being done as part of the reconstructive process, as the sooner new nodes are put into the arm, the better the response. Nodes in this case are often taken from the groin and placed in the armpit. Other patients may have it done years after the onset of Lymphedema and may also need some liposuction to remove stubborn fibrotic areas. There has been great success in improving the arms of these patients and giving them a better quality of life. Surgery for Lymphedema of the legs is more recent and takes longer to see results. In some cases two transfers are needed to groin and lower leg. For a patient to be eligible for LNT to arm or leg they need to be assessed by a surgical Lymphedema specialist. Their Lymphatic system would be mapped to find suitable nodes to harvested and the best position for placement to get maximum results.
March 14th 2013 I had the first leg Lymph Node transfer in Australia, Lymph nodes were taken from my neck and placed in my left knee. I started to create a blog about this, as I felt it needed to be documented. I called it “My Lymph Node Transplant,” it has now grown to include many articles, videos and stories that I feel will help people manage their Lymphedema. It is also a great resource for those who are having Lymph Node Transfers or other surgery world-wide for Lymphedema, in both arms and legs, as this is now becoming more common. My leg is doing well a year later the nodes are growing but it is a slow process, so far I have had no infections and that makes me very happy!! The hope is that as the surgeons become more experienced this will become a viable treatment for Lymphedema.
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