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Lymphedema & Physical Therapy

Christina Kuzma, Manager of Business Development at Tx:Team, successfully battled breast cancer this year using physical therapy as an integral part of her treatment plan. She says that the one thing she would have done differently is to start physical therapy sooner. She began therapy the day after surgery with stretches and massages to target her lymphatic system. Despite her success, she thinks that her body would have been better prepared for the pain and stiffness if she had practiced therapy in the weeks leading up to her surgery. These pre-operation exercises are especially important when thinking about post-operation outcomes that can hinder a patient’s success. An example to consider, which often goes undetailed, is Lymphedema. Christina’s symptoms during radiation did not flare to become Lymphedema; however, reports show that having an extensive surgery, such as mastectomy, paired with radiation can increase the odds of facing Lymphedema six-fold.

WHAT’S LYMPHEDEMA?

Lymphedema can occur from any compromise to the lymphatic system; however, Lymphedema is especially common among breast cancer survivors because it can happen when lymph nodes are missing, impaired, or removed. Swelling will ensue if this system begins to have problems draining excess fluids, waste, or toxins from the body. Most commonly in breast cancer patients, the swelling shows in the arm or hand, and sometimes in the underarm, chest, trunk, or back. It can be a very serious, debilitating, and painful problem.

 

To identify Lymphedema, know that it develops gradually; however, early detection is important. Uncomfortable sensations, like tingling or numbness, in any of the listed common areas precedes visible swelling of those parts. Some patients will also report feeling full or heavy, and others report decreased flexibility and tightness. Including a Lymphedema assessment in a routine follow-up visit with a doctor at most, 6 months after surgery, could substantially decrease the physical, emotional, and financial burdens of Lymphedema on breast cancer survivors. Early detection treatment and even a pre-surgical rehab visit can vastly improve your outcome if diagnosed with Lymphedema.

MEET KIM BROWN

Kim Brown is a Tx:Team Physical Therapist at FMH Rehabilitation Crestwood, in Frederick, Maryland. While she did not treat Christina directly, Kim is all too familiar with the diagnosis and treatment for patients just like Christina.

Kim is trained and certified in Lymphedema treatment. Seventy-five percent of her clients are breast cancer patients. Due to the sensitivity of this condition, which balloons the body and causes intense, uncomfortable pain, Kim treats Lymphedema with private and personal care. According to Kim, “Success is defined by the empowerment of patients, with hopes of not only regaining their strength and living pain-free, but also regaining self-esteem and authority over their condition.”

For that reason, education about Lymphedema is a big part of Kim’s job.  “Most patients haven’t tried much besides medication to cope with their pain or persistent disability,” says Kim.  It’s likely that for that reason, many patients arrive thinking that there’s no real opportunity to improve. However, alongside the use of manual therapy and bandaging to heal tissue and reduce swelling, Kim and her team of therapists teach their patients how to exercise and manage their condition on their own.

There are few comprehensive studies conducted on Lymphedema in breast cancer patients, and as a result, Lymphedema can often be brushed over in conversation. Christina Kuzma reports that she only knew about Lymphedema thanks to a co-worker. Otherwise, Lymphedema was only mentioned to her quickly in a doctor’s visit as a potential outcome. Despite this serious lack of information and discussion, you are not an outlier if you experience this swelling and it deserves immediate attention. One study reports that in the first 18 months of recovery from breast cancer surgery, 1 in 10 patients experience Lymphedema. By 18 months, about 30% of patients have, or have had Lymphedema. Irrespective of these odds, it is most important to educate yourself on Lymphedema and keep tabs on the changes in your body as it undergoes intense and stressful circumstances.

LIVE YOUR LIFE, PAIN-FREE

It cannot be said enough how important it is to care for the health of your body and those you love. Circumstances can quickly change and you may feel out of control, but know that living comfortably is within reach. Especially to cancer patients, Kim Brown insists that there is always room for improvement. She says, “Beating cancer isn’t the end of your journey. Don’t accept weakness, fatigue, and pain as a part of your life post-cancer. Talk to your doctor and maintain that your goal is to return to the state that you were in before cancer came into your life.”