Avera Medical Minute ASL: Treating lymphedema with physical therapy

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One out of every eight women will face a breast cancer battle in their lifetime -- a diagnosis no one prepared to hear.

Rebecca Johnson’s life forever changed two days after Christmas of 2016. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.

“I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy. And then once we found that three lymph nodes were cancerous, then it was chemotherapy. And that was 16 treatments of chemo, and two different types of chemo and six weeks of radiation,” said Johnson.

Johnson decided from day one she was going to stay one step ahead of potential side effects like lymphedema.

“It’s best to get on top of it right away so that you don’t have problems with range of motion and also it can be quite painful,” said Johnson.

Physical therapist Sherry McNulty at Avera St. Luke’s in Aberdeen treats patients with lymphedema.

“We pick the area that seems most involved, and for Becky it was her arm, and we would take measurements at the wrist, different joints in the hand and we would work our way up every four centimeters or so. I think everybody’s heard of ‘edema’ which is just generally swelling and ‘lymphedema’ is in particular a high protein edema. We hear about in in relationship to cancers and particularly breast cancers, the arm being particularly vulnerable to having lymphedema,” said McNulty.

“People always think physical therapy, they think rehabbing a knee and it’s painful and everything. It’s actually kind of like having a massage because you’re massaging the lymph nodes to relieve the buildup fluid,” said Johnson.

“And then we come and stimulate the lymphatics through the abdominal region. Most of it’s pretty gentle because the overall effect that you want to achieve is that the lymphatic system is simulated, that it’s better able to collect the fluid and draw it out,” said McNulty.

When Johnson received radiation, she had to take a break from physical therapy.

“And I could actually feel it swelling up and getting a little uncomfortable, not painful but uncomfortable. And I could see where you want to keep on top of it. And so then, after radiation, I started physical therapy again for the lymphedema and it went right away,” said Johnson.

“That tissue can change even within a treatment session. I can see changes,” said McNulty.

“Really be your own advocate -- really dig into your diagnosis and figure out what your options are,” said Johnson.

McNulty says even if it’s been years since your breast cancer surgery, your lymphedema is still treatable through physical therapy.

For more information, just call 877-AT-AVERA.