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Overcoming Lymphedema After Cancer Treatment

October 23, 2015

Sometimes it feels as though life gives you more than you can handle.

Four years ago, I certainly felt this way. In January of 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, I didn’t realize that this diagnosis would lead me to fight another battle just as difficult.

I underwent a bilateral mastectomy after I was diagnosed. During that procedure, my doctor discovered cancer in the sentinel lymph node under my right arm and had to remove 28 lymph nodes from the area. This step was necessary to save my life and rid my body of cancer, but it also led to a condition that sometimes is an unfortunate byproduct of cancer: lymphedema.

Coping with Lymphedema

Lymphedema affects more than 4 million people in the U.S. It happens when the lymph nodes are damaged or removed during cancer treatment. It leads to swelling in the arms and legs and makes everyday life more difficult. I had issues with my right arm for several months after surgery, but it did improve after therapy. However, in August of 2012 I had another flare-up that didn’t get better with therapy or other treatments that often ease lymphedema symptoms, such as compression sleeves, wrapping and an at-home compression machine.

My right arm’s appearance was significantly larger than my left and always felt heavy and achy. Normal tasks became more difficult. It was hard to brush my teeth, dry my hair, cook or pick up a cup of coffee. It was challenging to find clothes that would fit over my swollen right arm. At work, it was hard to use a computer for long periods or to do something as simple as stapling pieces of paper.

Finding a Solution

Before this happened to me, I didn’t know much about lymphedema or what my treatment options were. That was until a coworker at Orlando Health and fellow breast cancer survivor told me about a relatively new procedure, that could help people with lymphedema.

VLNT involves harvesting and transferring healthy lymph nodes from one part of the body to the site of the lymphedema. She was undergoing the procedure and referred me to resources where I could learn more about it. I watched a video of Dr. Richard Klein and his colleagues doing the After I learned more, I got intrigued and set up an appointment to see if Dr. Klein could help me.

Honestly, the thought of living the rest of my life with lymphedema was very discouraging. I was hopeful that VLNT might be a solution, but Dr. Klein had to first run some tests to determine if I was a candidate for the procedure. The results were good, and we decided to move ahead with the surgery.

But there would be more roadblocks.

My VLNT procedure was originally scheduled for June of 2013, but had to be rescheduled several times because of issues with approvals from my health insurance provider. In July 2013 I developed cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection, in my lymphedema-affected arm. This led to doctors finding bacteria in my blood and a frightening weeklong hospital stay. After I returned home, I developed from a central catheter inserted in my unaffected arm and had to return to the hospital for a week. Fortunately, on October 24, 2013, my surgery finally happened.

The day of the surgery I was excited and hopeful. I had trust and faith in Dr. Klein because he also had performed my reconstructive surgery eight days after my mastectomy in 2011. The lymph node transfer surgery went well. Dr. Klein transferred lymph nodes from the lower part of my abdomen to my right underarm area. After a relatively easy two-week recuperation period, I gradually began to see improvement in the pain level and size of my arm.

A New Beginning

VLNT has changed my life. I can now do normal, everyday things that most of us take for granted, like brushing my teeth and drying my hair. Before my oldest daughter had her wedding in May, I shopped for and found the perfect mother-of-the-bride dress without worrying about my swollen right arm. Today, my arm is 75 percent smaller than it was before the VLNT procedure. My right arm is currently only 3 percent larger than my left, which is within the normal 1 to 4 percent range for the dominant arm. More importantly, I don’t have any pain, heaviness or achiness in my arm when I do normal, daily tasks. Recently, I’ve been able to fly without compression sleeves and have not experienced any noticeable swelling.

Dr. Klein’s vascularized lymph node transfer procedure has improved my quality of life tremendously and will have a positive impact for years to come. But more people need to know that this solution is available. I still run into people who have never heard of a surgical treatment for lymphedema. Millions of people suffer from this condition, and the VLNT procedure can improve their quality of life, just as it did for me.

I’d encourage anyone with lymphedema to look into this surgery and visit Dr. Klein to determine if you are a candidate for VLNT. More than 120 people have undergone this procedure and have experienced significant improvement in the swelling and pain caused by lymphedema. VLNT is a straightforward procedure, with a short recuperation period. Undergoing this surgery was very much worth it for me. When you have lymphedema, there are days that you think it’ll never get better. It’s difficult to have hope, but VLNT has given me this and so much more. For that, I’m forever grateful.

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