This article first appeared in the Rushville Republican on April 2, 2019.
Cancer is not a “one size fits all” disease. There are many types of cancer and there are many different forms of treatment. The advantage of any type of cancer treatment is that it may help patients conquer their disease. The disadvantage is that it may cause unpleasant side effects. One of the side effects that can result from radiation and/or some types of cancer surgery is a permanent condition known as lymphedema.
Patients who have lymphedema suffer from a build-up of fluid, which causes swelling. This usually occurs in an arm or leg, including fingers and toes. It may cause the patient’s arm or leg to feel tight and heavy, making movement difficult and uncomfortable.
As a result of these difficulties, cancer patients who develop lymphedema often need to seek treatment from a trained therapist. At Rush Memorial Hospital, the person who delivers this treatment is Occupational Therapist Terri Uppfalt, OTR/L, CLT.
Terri came to Rush Memorial Hospital after having earned her degree in occupational therapy from the Indiana University. When asked what occupational therapists do, Terri said, “We focus on anything that a person does to occupy their time, especially normal day to day activities. This includes self-care activities like getting dressed, taking a bath, positioning a wheelchair or taking medications safely.”
When treating patients with lymphedema, Terri first begins by massaging the swollen arm or leg. This helps the fluid drain out of the tissue, which immediately makes the patient feel better. After the massage, Terri wraps the limb in tight bandages called compression bandages. These help keep fluid from moving back into the tissues.
Patients may also need to wear special clothing known as compression garments. Terri measures the patients for this clothing so that it can be ordered to fit.
Education is an important part of any form of rehab therapy. Terri teaches her patients to recognize what situations trigger their condition, leading to more severe symptoms. Once they know what those situations are, they can either avoid them or develop ways to cope.
“The more patients are able to manage their own condition,” Terri said, “the more confidence they feel.”
Patients also learn to recognize the importance of movement. As swelling makes movement uncomfortable, patients move less. As they move less, more swelling occurs. It becomes a vicious circle.
Cleanliness is another important factor in dealing with lymphedema. Keeping the skin clean helps reduce the risk of a skin infection known as cellulitis. It is something that patients can learn to focus on at home, giving them one more tool to use in dealing with their condition.
When asked why she chose to become an occupational therapist, Terri said, “I like to help people.”
Terri believes that her patients are very special people.
Terri said, “Some of my patients have had terrible setbacks in their lives. I see them working so hard to overcome difficult circumstances. Their hard work and efforts are a source of inspiration to me.”