3rd March 2023
“Having this service is fantastic and well-needed - the results I got were amazing,” according to Sarah Lane, speaking about the new Lymphoedema Service in Summerhill, Co Meath.
A long-term condition, lymphoedema causes swelling in the body’s tissues. It can affect any part of the body but generally develops in the arms or legs. It usually develops when the body’s lymphatic system does not work properly. The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands throughout the body that helps fight infection and remove excess fluid. It is important to diagnose and treat the condition as soon as possible. If it is not treated, it can get worse.
Launched in recent weeks, the new specialist clinic in the Summerhill Primary Care Centre provides high-quality, comprehensive services for lymphoedema and lipoedema patients.
For Sarah, her lymphoedema developed as a result of cancer surgery:
“Six years ago I was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer. I had a spot on my upper back that was removed and the results came back as malignant melanoma. To see if it had spread, I had to have more surgery on my back and a lymph node biopsy in the underarm. It turned out it had spread to some lymph nodes and more surgery was carried out. In the space of eight months the cancer had returned, requiring more surgery and 35 rounds of radiation – all contained in that area under my armpit.”
A hairdresser, Sarah said she was told of the risk of lymphoedema developing as a result of the treatment: “I was initially provided with a compression sleeve which is a garment that helps move fluid out of the affected limb and reduces further build-up. I was advised to wear this, especially when on a plane. Then, three years ago I noticed swelling in my arm. It felt heavy and the skin felt tight – it was the start of lymphoedema.
“I had a couple of appointments to try and address it, but it got worse. Because of the cancer treatment, I had no lymph nodes in that area which made it hard for the fluid to travel around my body.”
The COVID-19 pandemic further added to Sarah’s difficulties: “All occupational therapy services were stopped and it was hard for me to get to see someone. This affected me hugely – my arm was getting worse. I found it really difficult getting clothes to fit. Even little things like drying my hair were tough and I had to get my wedding bands sized up because of it. I’m a hairdresser and having lymphoedema in my arm forced me to retire. At 39 I’m too young to retire and hairdressing is all I know.”
However, earlier this year when she was attending an appointment for blood tests, Sarah (who is continuing to receive treatment for melanoma) explained how a nurse told her about the new Specialist Lymphoedema Clinic in Summerhill:
“She explained that I just needed to be referred by my GP. She gave me a leaflet and then helped me fill in the forms. I got a call the next day and made an appointment.”
Sarah says she was “so happy to be able to finally see someone and get a treatment plan in place. I met Thelma Dunne, a lymphoedema therapist, at the clinic and we had a very long chat about the condition and how serious it is. The reality of it, particularly that it will never go away, can be quite upsetting. But I felt Thelma listened to me and understood how it made me feel. She advised that the treatment plan I was given would help keep it manageable.
“Thelma went through everything with me. She described how she would do a wrapping treatment which involved wrapping my arm in bandages twice a week for the following three to four weeks. She would do a lymph drain massage first and that helped in easing some discomfort from the build-up of scar tissue. Then she would wrap my arm tightly to reduce the build-up of fluid. And of course, she measured my progress.
“The results I got were amazing and the fluid reduction was brilliant. Having this service is fantastic and much needed. I have come away with loads of information and ways to manage my condition.”
Sarah concludes: “I’m very grateful. Lymphoedema is an awful side effect from cancer treatment but this service really helps.”
Fellow patient, Karen Lavelle, adds her support: “It’s so important to have this clinic because patients require regular manual drainage, bandaging and help with fitting their support wear. It would be so much more difficult to have to travel to Dublin.
“In the past, I would have waited months for an appointment with physiotherapists in a Dublin hospital. Or even worse – there may not be any services available. I am lucky that my condition is well under control now. Of course, problems will occur, but now when they do, it’s great to know that I can just pick up the phone. It means I can make an appointment with one of the physiotherapists - often at short notice. And it’s also been great to be able to build relationships with the therapists.
“I would advise anyone who has had cancer surgery such as breast or gynae to discuss with their consultant the possibility of lymphoedema and pay close attention to their relevant limbs for signs of swelling. There is a lot than can be done to limit the impact of the condition.”
Speaking as the new service was launched, Des O’Flynn, HSE Chief Officer for the Midlands Louth Meath Community Healthcare Organisation, said that it was a “very worthwhile initiative that will provide high quality, comprehensive services.”
, HSE Project Manager, Lymphoedema Services, added that “the introduction of this Specialist Lymphoedema Clinic with three lymphoedema therapists and one assistant, will have a significant impact. We know lymphoedema is not curable, but it can be successfully managed with an emphasis on education, awareness, prevention, early detection and up-to-date treatment which will lead to improved outcomes for patients.”