Living With (or Not) the Lymphedema and Scars from Breast Surgery

When nothing else seemed to be working, I searched for some "alternative" alternatives.
PUBLISHED October 10, 2015
Merle Sprinzen Tessier has been a marketing and business strategist in New York City for more than thirty years, and began her career in market research.
The surgery I had to treat my breast cancer removed the cancerous tumor along with 13 lymph nodes in my armpit, because it turned out that the sentinel node tested positive for the presence of cancer. Luckily, none of the other 12 nodes were cancerous. So all I ended up with was two scars ... and lymphedema.

Everything close to the location of the surgery was painful and sore, of course, but the lymphedema made it all worse. I would grow something very painful that was the size and shape of a Kirby cucumber in my armpit and would have to go to the surgeon’s office every other day or so to get it drained of the cup of fluid it contained — a process which itself was painful and certainly inconvenient. This went on for several weeks with no sign that it was going to stop or even get better. The surgeon, who I still have the highest respect for, had nothing to offer in the way of treatment or hope. So I started to talk to my friends who practice in the alternative medicine arena. I figured there had to be a way to keep this fluid from collecting in the first place, or to collect more slowly, or to drain more naturally, or something that would cut the pain and bother.

One of my friends recommended that I see a woman who was certified in the Vodder technique of lymph massage. I called and scheduled an appointment for the very next day — I was really in agony. Lymph massage is pretty peculiar, because in some ways it feels like nothing. I’m used to deep tissue massage where the therapist is pushing pretty hard and deep into the muscles and connective tissue. Lymph, though, travels pretty close to the surface and so the massage technique applies a very light and rhythmic touch to work on a layer just below the skin. I found it quite calming, relaxing and soothing. That first treatment did the trick — I never grew the “cucumber” again. I had several more of these massage treatments just to make sure it never returned and, in fact, I have never swelled up there again at all. 

While the massage therapist was working on my lymph system we got to talking about my scars, which were also quite painful.  The scars prevented me from raising that arm straight above my head because that movement pulled right across the scars. It felt like the scars were deep ravines, connected all the way down to my ribs.  It turned out that the therapist was also trained in scar massage, a technique that slowly releases the adhesions that form as the scar heals. We didn’t begin these sessions for two or three months to give the scar a chance to heal, but even then the work left me a little tender and sore for a day or two after each session, but nothing I couldn’t manage. Over the course of several sessions over several months, she was able to release the skin and the layers of scarring completely so that I could freely move my arm again.

I am certainly not advocating these treatment techniques for anyone else. I’ve heard that lymph massage might have worked better in my case than in others because I started it so soon after the surgery. But I am suggesting that it’s possible to be an advocate for your own well being, exploring other options if you’re dissatisfied with what’s otherwise being offered.
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