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World Lymphedema Day raises awareness

Updated: May 16, 2019

Today is

intended to draw attention to lymphedema, which is a chronic disease that results in the swelling of an arm or another extremity. An estimated 250 million people suffer from lymphedema, according to the Lymphatic Education and Research Network. Breast cancer patients who have had an axillary node dissection, or the removal of all lymph nodes under an arm, have a 15 percent to 25 percent chance of developing lymphedema.The lymph nodes carry lymphatic fluid, which is full of infection-fighting white blood cells, across the body; when lymph nodes are removed, the lymphatic drainage system is altered and fluid can collect in the arm where the nodes were removed, making it swell.

Fortunately, I do not have lymphedema, but I am still at risk for developing it. I had an axillary node dissection with my mastectomy because we knew that I had cancer in my lymph nodes. I had had a biopsy of a node above my collar bone before I began treatment, because it was swollen. It tested positive for cancer, and other diagnostic scans showed enlarged lymph nodes in the area around my armpit. Fortunately, chemo shrunk those nodes, and they were removed during my mastectomy. However, their removal does increase the likelihood that I will develop lymphedema at one point. Radiation increases that risk as well, and I had radiation after surgery.

After my surgery and before I began radiation, my oncologist had me visit Dr. Larry Feldman at NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois, to check for any signs of lymphedema. Feldman helped found the Lymphology Association of North America (LANA) and is one of only 1,863 LANA-certified therapists across the country. I consider myself lucky to be near an expert such as Feldman, who realizes that lymphedema is still not widely understood. It is said that some surgeons do not even believe that what they do -- removal of the lymph nodes -- causes the disease.

That is why World Lymphedema Day is important. Hopefully it will draw attention to the disease, and make people aware of their risk for developing it. Once it does develop, treatments such as massage can help drain the lymphatic fluid from extremities. Occupational therapists can help with that.

To learn more about lymphedema and World Lymphedema Day, see here.

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