More information about lymphedema is available at www.lymphnet.org. Anyone who is planning cancer surgery or who has had cancer surgery or radiation treatment may schedule a free lymphedema consultation by calling YVMC’s SportsMed at 970-871-2370.
Almost 12 years after being diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, Craig resident Bonnie Curtis is beaming. The cause of her celebratory smile is something most of us take for granted. She can reach above her shoulder and bend her right arm.
“I’ve got elbow!” Curtis triumphantly says, flexing her arm to prove it.
With the help of two specialist therapists at Yampa Valley Medical Center, Curtis has overcome the worst symptoms of her lymphedema. This nasty side effect of some cancer treatments can create serious swelling, discomfort and disability.
“The lymphatic system transports and filters vital fluids throughout the body,” explains Jodi Bringuel, physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist at YVMC.
“Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid that is not draining properly. It can be caused by removal of lymph nodes or damage to the lymphatic system,” she said.
Curtis’ breast cancer surgery in 2000 involved removal of 18 lymph nodes. About a year later, she noticed that her arm “started poofing up.” Although she sought treatment, the swelling kept creeping up toward her shoulder.
In 2004, Curtis began working at YVMC as a housekeeper. Noticing Curtis’ badly swollen arm, one of her new co-workers suggested that she see Susan Ring, certified lymphedema therapist, physical therapist and director of SportsMed at YVMC.
“Susan and Jodi have been my angels ever since,” Curtis said.
Bringuel has a passion for her work, in part because of her own family history of cancer.
“In the United States, lymphedema is most often a result from cancer surgery or treatments,” Bringuel said.
“The main groups of lymph nodes are found in the armpit and groin areas,” she explains. “These are often the site of biopsies when determining if cancer has spread to the lymphatic system. Sometimes lymph nodes are removed in surgery or are damaged by radiation treatment.
“The key thing we want people to know is that once lymphedema starts, it’s a matter of managing it for the rest of your life,” Bringuel said. “There is no cure. But there are things people can do and avoid doing to reduce their risk.”
Warning signs can be subtle. Typically lymphedema can cause some minor discomfort, but it is not painful, Bringuel said. One arm or leg may seem heavier. Clothing or jewelry may feel a little tighter.
Bringuel said early intervention is vital to keep swelling to a minimum. That is why she attempts to visit with everyone who has cancer surgery at YVMC, either before or soon after his or her surgery.
“We offer a free consultation,” Bringuel said. “This education is available to all residents of the Yampa Valley, regardless of where they have their surgery.”
Lymphedema treatment has three components — education, manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging or compression garments.
Curtis credits her recent dramatic improvement to the newest technique of manual lymphatic drainage, a relaxing whole-body experience that “opens up” the entire lymphatic system.
“Just this year, we started manual drainage,” she said. “Up until then, it was just arm massage and wrapping. My arm is so much smaller and lighter now. I can see my wrist bone for the first time in years.”
At a recent check-in with Bringuel and Ring, Curtis learned that she is eligible for a new, smaller arm compression “sleeve.” She wears one type of sleeve during the day and a different one at night.
Lymphedema treatment at YVMC also includes education about skin care. Because lymphedema increases the risk of infections, something as simple as a hangnail or scratch can cause an infection.
Curtis spent years coping with her swollen arm, aching shoulder and limited movement.
“I didn’t let it get me down, but my life is definitely better now,” she said. “Jodi and Susan are always learning about new treatments and techniques, and they gave me back my arm.”
Christine McKelvie is the public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.