If you have lymphedema, a chronic swelling of limb, breast, head, neck or trunk, you are not alone. Millions of people worldwide suffer from this condition, including many cancer survivors like me. While lymphedema can lead to loss of energy and mobility-and possibly even to depression-don’t let it get you down.
Like Lot’s wife looking back at Sodom with regret for what could no longer be, I used to pine for my pre-lymphedema life and, before that, my life without breast cancer. Days that were carefree, blissfully ignorant-and non-compassionate. I had not yet recognized and appreciated the blessings that come from developing lymphedema. Eventually I came around to enjoy my post-lymphedema life, replete as it is with interesting exercises I’d never heard of before and opportunities to help others reeling from a lymphedema diagnosis. Who wants to turn into a pillar of salt as Lot’s wife did? As lymphedema survivors we are to minimize our salt intake, not become it!
Besides giving tips on what works for me, a delight of my new life is engaging in appropriate activities. Our bodies require a healthy lymphatic system to optimize immune response and disease resistance. Fluid forced out of the bloodstream during normal circulation is filtered through the lymphatic system to remove bacteria, proteins, and other material that accumulates in the vessels. Unlike the circulatory system that has a pump (the heart) to move its contents, the lymphatic system moves by inertia. Thus, when lymphedema compromises our lymphatic system, we need help to remove built-up matter from congested areas.
Many ways exist to control chronic lymphedema swelling, including therapeutic dancing, active-elongation exercises, deep abdominal breathing, and swimming. A fascinating and fun program I explored to rev up my circulation was Healthy-Steps, otherwise known as the Lebed Method, Focus on Healing. Started by Sherry Lebed Davis, herself a lymphedema survivor, this program may reduce lymphedema symptoms by lowering fluid amassment in affected tissues so that participants can enjoy improved circulation, more energy, and a better attitude toward life.
By focusing on the areas of the body having the largest lymphatic collection sites and unclogging lymphatic “drains,” Healthy-Steps opens up the lymphatic system through gentle, rhythmic movements and deep breathing. Healthy-Steps works in conjunction with compression garments to improve their effectiveness in controlling swelling.
Check to see if Healthy-Steps is offered in your area, for example, in medical centers, hospitals, exercise and fitness centers, dance and yoga centers, retirement communities and assisted living facilities. When I took this program last year, I thoroughly enjoyed stretching, ball throwing, interactive social support, laughing and blowing bubbles. I don’t have any financial interest in this program, but merely recommend it as a patient who experienced the benefits for herself.
It has been several years now since I dissociated myself from Lot’s wife, someone who looked back with longing on a life no longer available. As a breast cancer survivor with chronic lymphedema I embrace each moment of my existence and take healthy steps toward optimizing my lymphatic system. You can, too!
A retired patent attorney, Jan Hasak authored Mourning Has Broken: Reflections on Surviving Cancer (Xulon Press 2008). In this inspirational memoir she shares how her hope in Christ sustained her as she underwent breast-cancer treatment at age 43 and again at 52, and dealt with lymphedema.