Hospital program the only one in the area
CMC-Union’s lymphedema program opened its doors in 2010 and has since helped dozens to manage lymphedema, an incurable condition common amongst cancer survivors. Prior to the CMC Union opening, lymphedema sufferers had to travel to downtown Charlotte to receive treatments as often as three times a week over a period of several weeks.
Lymphedema occurs when the body’s lymphatic system—responsible for draining excess protein-rich fluids, are damaged or altered by lymph node removal surgery and/or radiation therapy. Uncomfortable swelling often results, while the area of swelling typically depends on where the surgery and radiation occurred. For women with breast cancer, for instance, lymphedema swelling occurs in the arms and/or hands. Swelling in some cases can enlarge limbs by as much as twice their normal size.
While other conditions like obesity and vein conditions can also lead to lymphedema, cancer patients are the most likely to suffer from this condition, with up to 40 percent of breast cancer patients developing this condition according to a CMC-Union press release on the topic.
Without proper identification, treatment and follow-up care, Lymphedema Therapist Chandra Stegall explains, the condition can greatly affect quality of life, with sufferers prone to skin care discoloration and hardening, making them susceptible to serious skin infections including cellulitis.
Opened five days a week, Stegall personally attends to patients of all ages. Treatment includes manual massage to stimulate the lymphatic system, Stegall says, in order to move the fluid away from the swollen area and restore the tissue to a normal state. Compression bandages help keep constant pressure on affected areas.
Education about skin care and home exercises are also critical to managing lymphedema, Stegall says. “After treatment, patients go into a health maintenance mode where they work to keep their lymph nodes small,” she says. “This makes this non-curable condition manageable.”
In April of this year, CMC-Union was one of 24 organizations in a nine-county area selected to receive funding from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Charlotte Chapter. Funds have been allocated to pay for the compression garments and bandages not usually covered by insurance but critical to managing lymphedema.
Although some cancer survivors never develop lymphedema, Stegall says, others are not so lucky. “We are here, we are available.” The clinic’s education program instructs cancer survivors on signs to look for to prevent this condition from spiraling out of control. “Prevention and self-awareness are key,” Stegall says.
People who believe they could benefit from lymphedema treatment should consult with their physician, Stegall says. For more information about the condition, excellent resources include the National Lymphedema Network at www.lymphnet.org.