Hiking Past Lymphedema


With each hike I complete, I feel empowered and reminded that breast cancer — and lingering lymphedema — cannot keep me down.

cartoon drawing of blogger and breast cancer survivor, Felicia Mitchell

The first time I climbed Mt. LeConte, a challenging destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I had invasive cancer thoughdidn’t know it yet. I would not be surprised by this diagnosis until two months and additional hikes passed. The second time I climbed this mountain (last week) I was both a survivor and a senior citizen. The challenge, which seemed daunting during the planning stage, ultimately reminded me how resilient I am.

Of course, I knew this new adventure would test my endurance, so I prepared with attention to my new normal, which includes lymphedema. Hiking with lymphedema means avoiding insect bites, scratches, extreme temperatures, repetitive motions and more. It means, for me, trying to avoid moving to a new stage with the condition.

For a time after I developed lymphedema, I used a waist pack because it is best to avoid constricting the lymphatic flow by, among other things, avoiding heavy purse straps (and, by association, backpack straps). While I still use the waist pack at times, I have worked out how to employ a better-fitting backpack with a waist belt and back pads that distribute weight well during a long hike.

Along with a good pack, hydration while hiking is key and perhaps more so for those of us with lymphedema. A water bladder is handy, and my pack can hold one, but it works better for my needs to distribute the weight of water on my hips rather than against my back. Carrying bottles of water in the side pockets of my pack, I can stay hydrated and comfortable.

I also use hiking poles, which help with balance on rocky and/or hilly terrain. Plus, they are essential for those creek crossings. Despite the repetitive motion of using poles, I do OK. My experience validates a report called “The effects of pole walking on arm lymphedema and cardiovascular fitness in women treated for breast cancer: a pilot and feasibility study” published in Physiotherapy: Theory and Practice.

Between my first hike to Mt. LeConte and the most recent, so much has happened, so much water under the bridge and chemo up my veins. This trip was special, reminding me of why I am hiking on one mountain trail or the other every chance I get. My treks include day hikes with friends, solo hikes on nearby trails for exercise and volunteering with the local Appalachian Trail club. I am empowered with each thing I do that I thought I would have to limit with lymphedema.

I want to believe that hiking alongside modern medicine has informed my survivorship all these years. Invigorating times in the mountains and on other trails has taught me that even with limitations like mild lymphedema, which I monitor carefully to keep in check, I can live a relatively active life as I age. Guidelines from the American Cancer Societyand conversations with my care team help me to maintain quality of life through exercise choices best suited to my needs. Hike if you can!

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