Dealing with Lymphedema in the Home Office


With so many cancer survivors working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we may need to assess how our shift to computer-based work affects limbs with lymphedema and make a few adjustments to the new routines to help ourselves out.

While I miss seeing students, the shift to teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic has been fairly seamless. In fact, we interact often — just in new ways. Unfortunately, when you have lymphedema teaching or attending meetings while hunched over a laptop for hours a day is not quite the same as walking around a classroom or sitting in an office. There has been more of a learning curve with my lymphedema than with online instruction.

My lymphedema is well controlled, so I was surprised to feel swelling in my arm after the first weeks of shifting energies from classroom to laptop. In an ideal world, that would mean I needed to get back in the pool. The pool, of course, is closed until further notice. Seeing a lymph drainage massage therapist could have been helpful, but that option is also out of the question. What could I do? What could any of us do?

First, I realized that I have to move more often rather than just sit at my desk for hours. Stretching occasionally is important. It is possible to sit at a desk and raise your arms over your head in a modified tree pose. I recommend holding them out to the side and then pulling the arms up for hands to meet as if in prayer. This stretch also helps because, along with the lymphedema, surgery gave me issues with my back and shoulder.

Second, do not just stretch at your desk. Get up and walk around at regular intervals, rather than sitting for an hour or more. I have reminded myself that at work when I worked in a classroom building, I took regular breaks. I might get up to make tea. I would walk downstairs to pick up mail, or scan something or ask the faculty secretary to process a form. I would walk to the administrative building to fill my stainless steel water bottle with purified water. At home, I have taught myself to get up and make tea or pour more water into my glass. I have made myself walk downstairs to do a load of laundry. Sometimes, I walk outside to collect mail and then walk back to my home office.

Third, do not forget to exercise in the middle of the workday, if possible. I realized soon into the transition to online delivery of instruction that I was missing my lunch hour walks with my walking buddy. At work, we keep each other focused on getting in our 2.6-mile loop around campus each day, pretty much rain or shine, preferring to walk and talk after eating a quick lunch at our desks. I found a substitute at home: a three-mile solitary loop around my "country block." I can walk this quiet loop in an hour. The serenity helps as much as the exercise.

Fourth, although I cannot visit a massage therapist, I can do a self-guided massage that is kind to my lymph system. At the end of the day, this helps. Fortunately, the directions for doing this massage have been taped to my bathroom mirror for years, just in case I need to remind myself how to do the massage and deep breathing. If your physical therapist has shared appropriate instructions for your lymphedema, self-drainage lymph massage might help.

Fifth, look at that laptop and decide if it is ergonomically appropriate for your arm. At work, I use a desktop with a keyboard. At home, I began to notice how I rested my arm on the edge of my laptop. I was not lifting my arms but instead inhibiting circulation. I had to teach myself to lift my hands a bit more, as with a traditional keyboard, which meant adding a pillow to my office chair.

Now is the time for workers who are telecommuting to be kind to their bodies.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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