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Summer Fun With Lymphedema

Summer fun can be a challenge for survivors with lymphedema. While you should do what your doctor, physical therapist and you have worked out as best for your needs, I share some of my helpful habits here.
PUBLISHED: JULY 17, 2017
I flew to Colorado recently to spend time with my son. Because air pressure during a flight can affect lymphedema, I wore a class 3 sleeve on the plane. I elevated my arm at times (wrapping it over my head) while drinking water and watching clouds.  

I also carried a class 2 sleeve to wear once I landed, in the event my arm indicated it needed one. I know that many people need to wear sleeves daily. I don mine when I detect a certain subtle sensation in the affected limb. This trip, this sleeve stayed in my suitcase (although I did need it some after I returned home, with all the hiking and flying and dry heat). I used to travel with a bag of supplies to have, just in case, to wrap at night, but have stopped carrying that. If I needed to, I could duplicate its contents away from home.   

While I did not wear a lymphedema sleeve during the visit, I was always respectful of the lymphedema. I know to avoid sunburn and insect bites. An SPF 50 long-sleeved shirt, often one with embedded bug repellant, over a T-shirt, tops off my hiking uniform. Because heat can aggravate lymphedema, I can wear a shirt like a cape for ventilation. Other times, I wear my shirt one arm in and one arm out (sunscreen on both arms).   

The first day in Boulder, I had a goal of hiking from the Chautauqua headquarters to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, mostly via the Mesa Trail and back again. It was a beautiful walk. I studied flowers and birds, including my first sighting of Western Tanagers. This long hike prepped me, and I hiked daily, each hike equally enchanting and some more strenuous. Each visit, my son always offers a challenge that pushes my limits and makes me feel stronger. The last day, he thought I would enjoy a summit. We climbed Green Mountain!   

Swinging an arm with lymphedema while hiking can be worrisome, or at least in my case it can, so I have acquired other helpful habits. While hiking, I elevate the arm above my heart now and then, wrapped over my head (my standby). As needed, I make a sling from my shirt or camera strap. In this way, I can keep walking with my arm resting. I do use hiking poles as needed. If I need two, I might wear a lymphedema sleeve or make do with one pole if weather is too hot for a sleeve.   

Another thing I do is stop to run water over my arm, either in a bathroom or from my water bottle or from a creek. Trickling water offers a cool massage. What else? A water bottle or reservoir! Hydration, hydration, hydration. Diaphragmatic breathing! Breathing deeply in a forest while birdwatching is good for body and soul.   

I tend to hike with a lumbar pack that is not too tight on my hips. Because I have experienced issues with my shoulder since my surgery, I rarely wear a backpack. I do own a serviceable one that allocates weight well, but it is not something I use unless I need to carry a good bit. I sometimes try on smaller hydration packs when out shopping. One day, likely before my next visit with my son, I will find one just right for my needs.   

Swimming remains helpful to me. I thus found the energy to get in a pool after hiking this trip. Stretching in the water and floating can feel good too. In a more private space, lymphatic self-massage is not a bad idea. In addition, I like to elevate my arm with a pillow while sleeping.   

On the way home, after a full-body scan in this airport, I was pulled aside for a pat-down of “shirt sleeves,” which included arms. I was hesitant to ask the attendant to pat gingerly on my lymphedema limb and wonder if putting on the lymphedema sleeve first might have sent a signal to be gentle.   

I also wonder why the scan flagged me. Could it be because my arms are asymmetrical? Could it be because I cannot pull the right arm as far back as I pull the left when holding both over my head? Could it be the large pit where lymph nodes were removed? No worries. Another time, somebody (after a full-body scan) pulled me aside to pat down my breast and mastectomy site. I always get home safe and sound.   

I had great times out west, lymphedema and all. As for you, do what your doctor, physical therapist and you have worked out as best for you. I, myself, look forward to traveling again, perhaps with a doctor’s note that says I have lymphedema in my right arm.

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Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net
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