Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kerry's Lymphedema Lecture

I have just returned from Houston where I attended the MD Anderson Cancer Center’s 10th Annual Integrative Oncology Training Conference. I spent three days in lectures and training sessions given by some of the smartest people I have ever encountered. I also got to hang with a few of the amazing and hilarious therapists from the Oncology Massage Alliance. ( I will gush about these fantastic folks and their important mission in an upcoming post.) The conference was awesome. It was edifying. It was compelling. It was overwhelmingly inspiring. It left me thinking and writing about several things that I plan to share with you, dear reader. The first thing is lymphedema. 

Do you know about lymphedema? You should. Everyone should.  Unfortunately, very few people do.

Lymphedema is a condition that arises when there is malformation of or damage to lymphatic vessels. The lymphatic vessels in our bodies are crucial to immune function and fluid balance (and probably a lot of other things that medical researchers still don't really understand well).  When lymphatic vessels don't work properly, protein-rich fluid backs up into the tissues. It creates swelling which can potentially cause painful deformity, damage tissues and organs, and put a person at high risk for serious, systemic infection. 

In case this bland, science-esque description made your feel like this, take a moment to do a Google image search of lymphedema. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

Right, you’re back? Should I tell you more? I thought so.

Unfortunately, cancer treatments can be a significant source of lymph node damage. Radiation can kill or scar lymph nodes and vessels. Cancer surgery, especially the surgeries used in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, may involve removing lymph nodes. 

Now, will everyone who receives radiation or surgery that affects the lymph nodes develop lymphedema? No. Absolutely not. Some people develop lymphedema after cancer treatment and some do not. 

Everyone who receives radiation or surgery that affects the lymph nodes is at risk of developing lymphedema. And that risk is life-long. So everyone who is at risk needs to follow some basic precautions to avoid developing lymphedema. And everyone who has a history of lymphedema needs to follow precautions to avoid triggering symptoms. And guess what... These precautions include only receiving massage from a trained oncology massage therapist!

In my massage practice I encounter many people who have survived the awful gauntlet of cancer and cancer treatment and now want to receive the same massage they were accustomed to receiving before their diagnosis. They are often frustrated because they feel like they are past cancer and they have a hard time believing that a “regular” massage could trigger lymphedema, but the truth is: it can happen. It has happened.  It is a very real risk and I believe that no massage is worth risking a person's health. Furthermore, a massage provided by a trained and skilled oncology massage therapist can absolutely meet the needs of a client without putting them at risk. So any risk is unnecessary risk.

If you’re thinking, “I can’t believe it! I’ve received (or given) a risky massage! I didn’t know!” Take a deep breath. It’s okay. Once upon a time I thought the same thing. I felt the same way. You didn't know. But now you do know. So what can you do?

So if you're a massage therapist, get trained
If you're a massage client with cancer or cancer history, get the right massage therapist!
And if you're a human being with a lymphatic system, get educated! 
Here's just a small list to get you started:
Lymphedema - Are You or Someone You Know at Risk? 
Step Up Speak Out
National Lymphedema Network
Lymphatic System - Khan Academy

Spread the word!