Suddenly, Teniola* find new pain in her body. Something that wasn’t anticipated, a survivor of ovarian cancer in 2003, went to her doctor, who found that she had stage II breast cancer. With a strong family history of the disease — both her mother and aunt had been diagnosed with breast cancer disease, and her aunt had died of it — the woman barely hesitated before deciding on a double mastectomy.
She continued to struggle with pain after the July 2012 surgery, which also required the removal of 19 lymph nodes. “One of the tubes they put in on my left side must have been pressing on a nerve,” she recalls.
The doctors were very leery of prescribing too much pain medication because of the risk of addiction. So she was in a lot of pain for weeks and weeks, she was very angry, both about the diagnosis and about the fact that she couldn’t do what she wanted to do.
Teniola found a new calling as an advocate for cancer survivors and others coping with a little-known condition called lymphedema. The body’s lymphatic system transports lymphatic fluid, which contains infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout the body. When this fluid doesn’t drain normally — most often, when lymph nodes are removed or damaged after cancer surgery — debilitating, disfiguring swelling can happen.
There’s no cure for lymphedema, but it can be treated with a complex program of physical therapy. During therapy, it’s usually possible for a woman to weight, which is a good thing but one has to be careful. At this stage, one can’t have a lot of salt or alcohol, have to stay out of the heat, and must not pick up heavy things.
Here in Nigeria, many doctors are not quite educated about the disease but the best advise is for anyone who has had lymph nodes removed to take precautions like Teniola did: avoiding cuts, infections, and burns (including sunburns) on the affected side of the body; ramping up any exercise program gradually and with a doctor’s supervision; and wearing pressure garments during exercise and air travel.