Lymphedema is a build-up of fluid typically in the arms, legs, head, or neck that is swelling that will not go away.
(PRUnderground) December 2nd, 2023
Mindy Bowman has faced one challenge after another during her two-year journey with breast cancer.
She said it was a shock to find the avocado-sized lump in her breast, then have her first mammogram, biopsy, and diagnosis within days in October 2021.
The journey has not been easy for the Whitehall Colorado resident, but today Bowman is thankful for the compassionate care she received from Intermountain St. James Healthcare. She highlighted the Wound Care Clinic for helping to care for her radiation burns and the lymphedema therapy she received to treat the swelling, which helped her get back to doing things she enjoys.
Bowman said she remembered her caregivers mentioning that swelling, also known as lymphedema, might result as a side effect from the lymph node surgery. She did not think much about that until her upper arm “got boggy.”
“It was just really heavy and in a strange place,” she said.
She also swelled in her upper chest. When they took measurements, she was surprised by the size difference in her arms. Bowman’s team referred her for therapy to Jean Scharchburg, OT/L, CLT, a certified lymphedema therapist with St. James Healthcare.
Lymphedema is a buildup of fluid typically in the arms, legs, head, or neck. It is swelling that will not go away. About 1 in 5 people treated for cancer will have lymphedema. The surgery, radiation, or removal of lymph nodes impairs the lymphatic system, which is responsible for draining fluid throughout the body. Cancer treatments are not the only cause of lymphedema.
“I see people who have had orthopedic trauma or swelling in their legs because of a vein issue,” said Scharchburg. She wants to make sure people know help is available when the swelling does not resolve on its own.
Symptoms of lymphedema are:
• Tightness or heaviness of a limb
• Numbness or tingling
• Increased warmth of a limb
• Impaired range of motion in the affected area
• Jewelry or clothing that becomes tight in the affected area
• Wounds that will not heal
• Swelling in the affected area
Lymphedema can impact daily living. A person can’t get into their normal size shoe or pants because of swollen legs. If they have swelling in their arms or neck, it can be painful or impossible to reach things overhead or carry something because your arms are weak or heavy.
Bowman has worked on a potato farm for 12 years and previously worked in her antique store. Because of the cancer, she is restricted to “light duty” a few days a week and lifting no more than 35 pounds.
“I fell in love with the hard work,” Bowman said of the potato farm. “Everything out there (to lift) is pretty much 50 pounds, but I’m happy to be at 35 pounds now. Forever, I could only do five.”
To get to that point, Bowman had lymphedema therapy with Scharchburg and learned what to do on her own.
The treatment might sound invasive or intimidating – manual lymphatic drainage – but Scharchburg said it is a gentle massage. Bowman described it as “waking up” the lymph nodes around the body and pushing the fluid in a rotating motion to get it where you want it to go.
“It’s just like massage, but there’s a weird feeling. You can feel your body reacting,” she said.
In addition to massage, Scharchburg said patients wear well-fitted compression bandages or garments; exercise to stimulate drainage; and, with family members, learn about home care, prevention, precautions, activity changes, and skin care. “Education is important because once the swelling has been reduced, we want to keep it under control,” she said.
Treatment for lymphedema is covered by most insurances. Patients should consult with a primary care provider to receive a referral for lymphedema therapy. Scharchburg and fellow certified lymphedema therapist Shelby Jennings, OTD, OTR/L, CLT, provide care at Intermountain Health’s St. James Healthcare Rehabilitation Services in Butte.
Bowman learned a lot about managing her lymphedema, but her most important lesson is one she wants to share with others. When she was diagnosed at 50, she had never had a mammogram.
“Now, I preach to everyone that they should get a screening mammogram,” she said.
For more information about lymphedema treatment in Colorado, call 406-723-2540, and for information on mammography, call 406-723-2950.
About Intermountain Health
Headquartered in Utah with locations in seven states and additional operations across the western U.S., Intermountain Health is a nonprofit system of 33 hospitals, 385 clinics, medical groups with some 3,900 employed physicians and advanced care providers, a health plans division called Select Health with more than one million members, and other health services. Helping people live the healthiest lives possible, Intermountain is committed to improving community health and is widely recognized as a leader in transforming healthcare by using evidence-based best practices to consistently deliver high-quality outcomes at sustainable costs. For more information or updates, see https://intermountainhealthcare.org/news.
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