Published on December 13, 2021

Lymphedema Treatment at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab at Silver Cross Hospital is a Game-Changer for Breast Cancer Survivor

Jill LaVant was completely stunned when she was told she had Stage 3A breast cancer in 2017, especially since she had been so diligent about getting her annual mammograms. 

But quick and thorough treatment at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox helped her through not only the emotional and surgical traumas, but another commonly undiagnosed disorder that often follows such surgery. 

“I had a partial mastectomy and 27 lymph nodes removed,” said LaVant, a freelance writer from Orland Park. “They told me before surgery that one of the risks was lymphedema. It wasn't long afterward that I began to develop symptoms such as fluid retention in my left breast, arm, hand and fingers.”    

Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one’s arms or legs, and it is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining properly, and the fluid build-up may lead to severe swelling.  

LaVant was referred to the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab at Silver Cross Hospital. Silver Cross and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab partnered to expand post-acute physical medicine and rehabilitation services in Will County. This partnership designates Silver Cross as the only healthcare facility in the area with this breadth of services to treat a broad range of conditions. 

Treatment for Lymphedema
Lymphedema wrapping

Lymphedema treatment includes wrapping of the affected limb.  

There, Physical Therapist Temitope “Temi” Asein worked with LaVant during several sessions. Therapy consisted of a gentle skin massage, also called manual lymphatic drainage, and arm/hand/finger wrappings, or multilayer bandaging, to help move the blocked liquid through those areas. 

Asein, who works specifically in the lymphedema clinic, said she usually sees cancer patients dealing with the aftermath of having lymph nodes removed and radiation therapy. Those patients will have a 50 percent chance of developing lymphedema, Asein said, but with emerging research and specialized surgeries, those numbers are decreasing. She has seen patients as young as 23.

 “Some patients present with Stage 1 lymphedema which is reversible, or stage 2 or 3 which is irreversible she said. LaVant has Stage 2 and was forewarned prior to her surgery that if she did get lymphedema, it would probably be chronic. 

“I talked to many of the patients in the waiting room when I was getting chemo and radiation, and none of them were diagnosed with it,” LaVant said, who also credited Physical Therapist Anna Kopacz with helping her. 

Ironically, prior to her diagnosis, LaVant had also watched Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates share her story of dealing with it following cancer surgery. She, too, notes in the story that even many doctors are unaware of lymphedema. 

Manual Lymphatic Drainage Technique
Temi Asein

Physical Therapist Temitope “Temi” Asein at Silver Cross.  

During therapy sessions, Asein said she performs a specialized skin stretch massage better known as manual lymphatic drainage from the point of the blockage – the left arm, in LaVant’s case – toward an unaffected drainage area to decongest the affected area. She then uses compression bandages to maintain the reduction gained following the manual drainage. 

Therapy will last until there is a noticeable reduction or stability in swelling, she said. Eventually the patient will be discharged from therapy with exercises. Compression garments and a pneumatic compression pump may be recommended if needed. This is a machine that wraps around the affected area and it mimics the drainage techniques used in clinic. This helps manage the chronic condition and ensure fluid flow even after discharge from therapy. They encourage patients to come in for a check-up every four to six months to see how things are going. 

Thankfully, LaVant has had no recurrence of her breast cancer, but she understands she must be vigilant with her home treatments mentioned above or her lymphedema could conceivably become much worse.    

LaVant also is thankful that her wife, Cheryl Hoth, has insurance that covers much of the cost of custom garments and the pump, which are not covered by Medicare.  

Asein says lymphedema awareness is something that’s needed for patients and doctors. 

“People post pictures of themselves on social media, asking what this swelling could be,” she said. “And other people will respond that it looks like lymphedema and suggest they seek treatment. Other times, people will see someone who’s bandaged and ask what’s wrong. And they’ll tell them about lymphedema.” 

LaVant still has swelling, but less than she did before treatment. While it’s unlikely the swelling will be completely resolved, she said she feels blessed with the treatment she received for lymphedema at Silver Cross. 

“I am very much aware that people have far more complicated physical struggles than I," LaVant said. "I want desperately for the lay public to understand that the emotional component of this disease can be equally burdensome.  

“I maintain my emotional equilibrium by spending quality time with my wife, keeping in touch with my friends and continuing my hobbies as much as possible. Most importantly, I try, with all of the strength I can muster, to maintain my humor.” 

For more information about lymphedema treatment at Silver Cross, visit www.silvercross.org or call 815-300-7110.

Physicians on Silver Cross Hospital’s Medical Staff have expertise in their areas of practice to meet the needs of patients seeking their care. These physicians are independent practitioners on the Medical Staff and are not the agents or employees of Silver Cross Hospital. They treat patients based upon their independent medical judgment and they bill patients separately for their services.