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Fighting a Lymphedemic – Cancer and Beyond

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Green grass and little white flowers on the field. Beautiful summer landscape. Soft focus

May 24, 2016     Written by William Repicci, Epameinondas Gousopoulos, and Kathy Bates

Your doctor enters your hospital room. First, the good news is delivered. The treatment was a success. You beat cancer. As your heart soars at the news, there is a muted warning that follows. You have a significant chance of now developing a disease called lymphedema, which you will have for the rest of your life. “Never you mind, though,” the doctor says. “Chin-up. After all, your life was saved. How can one complain about a little inconvenience in exchange for your life?” However, ask anyone with lymphedema what it is like to have this disease and you are likely to hear her or him say, “Lymphedema is worse than cancer. They cured my cancer. Lymphedema is forever.”

Lymphedema is fairly straightforward. It is a swelling resulting from the accumulation of lymph fluid when the lymphatic system is damaged or fails to function as it is meant to do. It most often affects one’s extremities. There are no cures and few treatments. Up to 150 million people across the globe suffer from it—many as a result of cancer treatment, others as one of the symptoms associated with filariasis, and still others will find that they have a genetic link to the disease that can lead to the onset of symptoms at birth or even much later in life.

So, how does lymphedema fit into a conversation about “well-being,” a term that asks us to quantify just how well our life is going. General well-being measures might include physical health and the absence of pain, the ability to perform those tasks that one loves and a sense that one is valued within their community. Without those basic qualities of life the physical limitations of lymphedema wear away at one’s joy. Patients feel further isolated from well-meaning friends who can’t comprehend what sufferers are going through.

A life with lymphedema means daily treatments that can last for hours. It means wearing expensive compression garments, often not covered by insurance, uncomfortable in warm weather and unfashionable all year round. It could mean one needs to use a pneumatic pump to reduce swelling and that a therapist will be needed to maintain health through manual lymph drainage. It means accepting the fact that the slightest cut on the skin might result in a bacterial infection called cellulitis, which may require occasional trips to the emergency room to avoid going into toxic shock. Aside from ongoing pain, clothes will no longer fit, one’s romantic life will be turned upside down and because high altitudes exacerbate the swelling, the adventure of air travel now raises only the fear of further physical trauma. Many sufferers report constant pain. All know ongoing discomfort as they carry extreme excess weight on one side of the body that isn’t symmetrical with the other limb. Routine joys like sports, gardening, going for walks, and even the wearing of one’s wedding ring, may have to be abandoned altogether.

Along with the physical ramifications of lymphatic disease and lymphedema, those with this disease report suffering the daily psychosocial trauma from a society that simply doesn’t understand the nature of disease. Feeling mocked and ostracized, a high incidence of patients report self-loathing, depression and suicidal thoughts.

In the United States alone, up to 10 million people suffer from lymphedema. This represents more patients in that country than those that suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and ALS—combined. Yet most people have never heard of it and little is invested in its cure. Too often presented to patients as simply an unfortunate side-affect of cancer, those who need to be the advocates of change have remained mostly muted.

However, this is changing. With NGOs such as Lymphatic Education & Research Network, patient advocates are making their voices heard—and both politicians and funding agencies are listening. The road to well-being for those with lymphedema must include new treatments and cures that relieve the suffering. In this regard, the National Institutes of Health has revealed a heightened interest in lymphatic research. There must also be insurance for the treatments that currently exist in order to relieve patients from the crushing financial burden they now shoulder themselves. And finally, a worldwide campaign is needed to educate the public and thereby reduce the current emotional suffering caused by misunderstanding of the disease.

A strong component of one’s well-being is feeling a psychological sense of community. This leads to a state of empowerment, which inspires the action that leads to change. The days of suffering in silence are coming to an end. With the United States Senate and other countries establishing March 6th as World Lymphedema Day, a global movement is afoot and revolutionary change in the quality of life of lymphedema patients will inevitably follow.

 

About the authors: William Repicci is the Executive Director of the Lymphatic Education and Research Network (LE&RN), Epameinondas Gousopoulos is MD/PhD researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich working on lymphedema treatment and Chair of LE&RN Europe Chapter, Kathy Bates is an Academy-Award-winning actress, lymphedema patient and spokesperson for LE&RN.

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Autor: monica boersch

Vor ein paar Jahre bin ich an Krebs erkrankt, bedingt durch meine Wertheim OP, Bestrahlung und Afterloading habe ich Lymphödeme bekommen, für mich sehr überraschend da ein paar Jahre dazwischen lagen, ich wusste das etwas nicht stimmt aber leider konnten unzählige Ärzte nicht helfen. Hier ist es auch so, wie in viele viele andere Länder auch, dass Lymphatische Erkrankungen erstens nicht wirklich ernst genommen werden und zweitens das kaum ein Arzt darüber Bescheid weiß, wie den auch, wenn in den Lehrbüchern so gut wie NICHTS steht. Mein Bestreben ist alles zu tun was in meiner Macht steht um dafür zu sorgen das jeder der betroffen ist weiß was er/ sie tun kann um sein Leben wieder so gestalten zu können wie er/sie das möchte. . Ich suche und suche immer weiter nach alternativ Möglichkeiten um meinen Leben so normal wie möglich zu gestalten. Die Empfehlungen die ich gebe sind bei mir durchaus wirksam und ich erziele gute Erfolge und behalte meine Lebensqualität. Mein Blog ist kein Ersatz für eine Ärztliche Betreuung und ich empfehle jeden mit seinem Arzt über Therapie Möglichkeiten etc. zu sprechen. Ich kann nur anregen und durch meine eigene, persönliche Erfahrung eventuell einen weg aufzeigen. Seit 2009 beschäftige ich mich weit über das übliche hinaus mit Lymphödeme. Nicht nur die „Diagnose“ interessiert mich, sondern ebenso was für einen Effekt es hat auf unser Sozialleben und unser Selbstwertgefühl. Ich habe viel Zeit und Geld investiert in andere Länder zu reisen um alternativen kennenzulernen, ich war bei Internationale Firmen als Gast um zu sehen welche Lösungen geboten werden, habe fast jeden Lymphologischen Kongress besucht um mich weiter zu bilden und einige Projekte als Freelancer machen können. Wie ihr sieht ist das weitaus mehr als nur ein Blog, es müssen sich grundliegende Dinge verändern um uns alle das zu geben was wir verdienen, Respekt, Empathie und das Bewusstsein das wir nichts Vorübergehendes haben, sondern das dieses ein Teil unseres Lebens ist und auch bleibt. After being diagnosed with Cancer and going through treatments, Wertheim operation, radiation therapy and afterloading I was suddenly hit by Lymphedema. Totally surprising since nobody even gave me a hint that this could happen. Running from one doctor to the other trying to find out what is wrong with me and why my body was changing so quickly, once again being in the situation of not having control of anything. This made me so angry that I started studying like crazy, I wanted to find out why we are left alone, why doctors don’t have a clue (sorry, most doctors) about Lymphedema and the consequences in all aspects of our lives. Sadly, I had to realize that hardly anyone knows anything about it. I started my quest to find alternatives in treatments, I traveled around the world investing my time and money, fortunate enough to spend time in companies specialized in Lymphedema treatment to learn all that I could and can. I hardly miss any Lymphatic congress, listening to the internationally known doctors, discussing what is important for us as patients. I have done some freelance work for the companies that I believe in and had the chance to work with a wonderful company in New Jersey. I have tested alternatives and I am still searching and studying because it is my quest to change things for all affected by this, not only our physical wellbeing but most importantly the impact that it has on our daily life. It’s not something that’s going to go away, it’s with us until the end and the minimum that we can expect is being taken seriously, respect and empathy for our situation and the importance for all of us that have the possibilities to change things for the better. There is so much work to do, and I am not going to give up. As you can see this is more than a blog. If you find something interesting on Lymphfantastic but you are having problems with the German, then just send me a message and I will be happy to translate that for you, my native language is English so that is no problem. Have a great day and looking forward to hearing from you soon. Bless you all, Monica

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