Being diagnosed with cancer is shattering. But after surviving the disease the long term effect on a person’s life is often caused by the treatment.
Someone who sees this first hand is Mater occupational therapist Melody Brown. Melody regularly treats patients for lymphoedema, a condition that can occur after treatment for cancer, when lymph nodes are removed from the body by surgery or damaged by radiotherapy”.
Conservative estimates suggest that at least 20 per cent of patients treated for melanoma, breast, gynaecological or prostate cancers will experience lymphoedema.
“The condition causes fluid to build up in the lymphatic system which results in swelling in the limbs and an increased risk of infection. Swelling often occurs in one limb more than the other, so results in a distorted body image,” Melody said.
“Treatment for lymphoedema includes skin care, exercise, wearing compression garments and regular treatment from lymphoedema specialists. It can be both a time and financial burden on people.”
Melody would tell you that the impact that lymphoedema has on a person’s life is devastating.
“There is no cure for lymphoedema. Once people have it they have it for life and I have seen people of all ages with the condition. It is not a condition that only occurs as we age.”
If you are wondering what having lymphoedema is like imagine taking part in a triathlon with a two kilogram weight strapped to your leg and wearing a compression garment.
Then imagine the psychological trauma you would face having a constant, life-long reminder that you had cancer.
Trevor Reibelt lived most of his life in the sunshine; from playing in the creek as a youngster to helping at his dad’s farm. So the 66 yearold grandfather-of-two wasn’t surprised when doctors found a metastatic melanoma on his shin three years ago.
“I’d always be out in the sun in the middle of summer and I very rarely wore a hat or a shirt,” Trevor said. “You just have to take these things as they come and when they took the first melanoma off it didn’t seem like much to me.”
Within 12 months Trevor’s cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in his groin, which required extensive surgery to his groin and pelvis.
“That one was a bit more intensive; I think I had about four months off work,” Trevor said.
The surgery also caused Trevor to develop lymphoedema.
Today, despite the lymphoedema Trevor remains in good spirits, having just returned from a four month caravan trip around Australia with his wife Jan.
“I like getting out and doing what we’d normally do. I just try to carry on normally with plenty of exercise because the muscle action helps move the fluid out of my leg.
Caring for people like Trevor is the reason that Melody and her colleagues at Mater are looking at ways to prevent lymphoedema in patients with metastatic melanoma.
Your support of Smiling for Smiddy is helping Melody and her colleagues perform a relatively simple study, to see if wearing compression garments and manual lymph drainage for six months after surgery can prevent lymphoedema in the leg.
Mater is already seeing some promising results in patients taking part in the trial and has recently joined forces with the Melanoma Institute of Australia in Sydney, to increase the scope and scale of the trial.
As Melody explained, Mater wouldn’t be able to conduct trials like this without people like you.
“One of the hardest parts of doing a trial like this is finding the funding to get started. You need to have published results to get government funding and in order to do the pilot trials required to publish results we rely on the generosity of the community and fundraising campaigns like Smiling for Smiddy,” Melody said.
“I have enormous admiration for the people who take part in Smiling for Smiddy. As an amateur triathlete myself I have some idea of the physical and mental strength it takes to be part of a Smiling for Smiddy event.
“But more importantly the funds raised help people like me improve the long-term quality of life for people affected by cancer. And I just can’t say thank you enough.”