Living With Lymphedema
- In honor of Lymphedema Awareness Month, we’re checking in Wendy Williams, a lymphedema warrior who refuses to let the disorder slow her down.
- Williams has previously shared that lymphedema makes her feel only “maybe 5% of [her] feet.”
- “Lymphedema is a disorder in which the lymph fluid — which is basically interstitial fluid that leaks out from our tissue continuously — cannot recirculate properly and stays stagnant in the tissue,” one of our experts says. She recommends monitoring for swelling since “detecting lymphedema early is key.”
- It’s unclear what caused Williams’ lymphedema, but possible causes for the condition include cancer, radiation treatment, surgery, parasites and inherited conditions where the lymphatic system doesn’t develop properly.
- There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are surgical options and non-surgical options to treat it. The stage of the disorder can help determine which options are most appropriate.
March is Lymphedema Awareness Month, and that means it’s time to bring attention to the chronic swelling disorder that is often associated with breast cancer surgery but affects both cancer survivors and non-cancer survivors alike. Williams hasn’t said what caused her lymphedema, but her perseverance while living with the disorder should inspire many.Read More
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Williams was reportedly surrounded by cameras and an “entourage.” And when Kelly asked what they were filming for, a member of her team said the boardwalk appearance was for a segment that would air in the late fall on a new show from the longtime TV host. Kelly even got to say a few words to Williams as she rolled down her window.
“I said, ‘Oh, you look great.’ And she said, ‘Thanks so much,’” Kelly explained. “She was super friendly … super nice, very engaging.
“I thought she was permanently off the air, so I was kind of shocked… You never know what you’re going to see on the Asbury Park Boardwalk.”
Williams has previously shared that she was “100% retired” from her daily TV show, but we’ll have to wait and see if that sentiment stands the test of time. In the meantime, Williams has been working on a podcast called “The Wendy Williams Experience,” though it remains unclear when it will finally launch onto podcast platforms.
Understanding Wendy Williams’ Disorder: Lymphedema
Lymphedema is tissue swelling caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that is normally drained through the body’s lymphatic system, according to the Mayo Clinic. It typically affects the arms or legs, but it can also occur in the chest wall, abdomen, neck and genitals.
“Lymphedema is a disorder in which the lymph fluid — which is basically interstitial fluid that leaks out from our tissue continuously — cannot recirculate properly and stays stagnant in the tissue,” Dr. Dung Nguyen, the director of breast reconstruction at Stanford Medicine, told SurvivorNet. “It’s critical that you monitor for swelling since detecting lymphedema early is key.”
Wendy Williams’ has not provided details on what caused her lymphedema, but the most common causes of the disorder include:
- Cancer. If cancer cells block lymph vessels, lymphedema may occur. A tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel, for example, could enlarge enough to block the flow of the lymph fluid.
- Radiation treatment for cancer. Radiation can cause scarring and inflammation of lymph nodes or lymph vessels.
- Surgery. In cancer surgery, lymph nodes are often removed to see if the disease has spread. However, this doesn’t always result in lymphedema.
- Parasites. In some countries in the tropics, the most common cause of lymphedema is infection with threadlike worms that clog the lymph nodes.
Less commonly, lymphedema can be caused by inherited conditions where the lymphatic system doesn’t develop properly.
Lymphedema can be uncomfortable and painful, so treatment can be used to reduce swelling and prevent complications.
Understanding and Treating Lymphedema
“Currently, there is no cure for lymphedema,” Dr. Nguyen explained. “We have surgical options as well as non-surgical options that help to control the progression of the disease.”
Stages of Lymphedema
Dr. Nguyen broke down treatment options by the stage of lymphedema. Below are the stages of lymphedema as defined by the American Cancer Society followed by Dr. Nguyen’s treatment explanations for SurvivorNet.
Stage 0: No swelling, but subtle symptoms such as feeling the affected area is heavy or full, or that the skin is tight
“When a patient presents with stage 0, typically would start out with conservative therapy,” Dr. Nguyen said. “Which would include physiotherapy, compression garments.”
Stage 1: Swelling of the affected area. There is increased size or stiffness of the arm or leg or affected area. For the arms or legs, the swelling improves when the arm or leg is raised.
“Patient who presents with stage 1 lymphedema are surgical candidates,” Dr. Nguyen said. “The most common form of surgery that offers effective results include lymphovenous bypass, and that procedure involves identifying obstructed lymphatics in the patient extremity and then bypassing it to a working superficial vein.”
Stage 2: More swelling than stage 1, which does not improve when the arm or leg is elevated. The affected area is hard and larger in size than stage 1.
“Usually when patient presents with stage two lymphedema, this is more advanced disease where they tend to have recurrent infections,” Dr. Nguyen explained. “In these group of patients, vascularized lymph node transfer is the option of choice.
“And that is because with lymph node transfer, the lymph nodes themselves will bring lymphatic tissue to the extremity and helps fight infection. So, the risks and the rate of infection significantly decreases with lymph node transfer.”
Stage 3: Much more swelling than stage 2. The swelling might be so severe that you cannot lift or move the arm or leg on your own without using your other arm. The skin can become very dry and thick. The swelling can cause fluid to leak from the skin or blisters to form.
“In patients who present with severe lymphedema, stage 3 lymphedema, the first approach is to do debulk the dense fiber fatty tissue that has built up,” Dr. Nguyen said. “And we do this using a technique called dry liposuction where the tissue is extracted from the extremity using suction device.
“Once the patient has recovered from the surgery – and this typically takes a good year to year and a half – then that patient can become a candidate for procedures like lymph node transfer or the lymphovenous bypass procedure to help reestablish the lymphatic drainage system in the extremity.”
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