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Lymphedema: an underexposed illness
Students aim to raise awareness year-round
On Sunday Oct. 20, the Student Occupational Therapy Association hosted its second annual CompOTition event to raise awareness for lymphedema, a complication commonly seen in breast cancer survivors.
The event raised money for the Brace for L.I.F.E. foundation, a non profit organization founded in 2012 by occupational therapy professor Gail Garfield-Dadio. Brace for L.I.F.E emphasizes education on lymphedema in breast cancer survivors, caregivers, first responders and the general community.
According to Garfield-Dadio, lymphedema is a chronic illness which occurs after breast cancer survivors have treatment. The lymph nodes swell with fluid and can cause disfigurement of limbs and, when left untreated, congestive heart failure.
To prevent lymphedema in breast cancer survivors, women must not have any type of medical treatment done on the affected side of their body, Garfield-Dadio said.
“We try to educate the breast cancer survivor that this could happen, because you can prevent it if you did not have it initially,” Garfield-Dadio said. “Because the lymph nodes have been taken out or damaged by radiation, if you get a flu shot, a blood pressure cuff, extreme heat or any medical treatment on that affected side, the body is diminished in its lymph system and cannot get rid of this extra swelling, creating lymphedema.”
Garfield-Dadio believes SOTA is becoming “agents of action” to promote the education of lymphedema for medical students on campus.
Kerrin Walsh, a senior and president of SOTA, believes that this event is helping not only the Brace for L.I.F.E. foundation, but SOTA as an organization.
“We came up with the idea of having an event because it is something that SOTA hasn’t really done in the past,” Walsh said. “We thought it would be perfect to include an (Occupational Therapy) professor and help her out with her new organization.”
SOTA chose Brace for L.I.F.E. for their fundraiser because as occupational therapists they may need to treat lymphedema when they enter the workforce, according to Walsh.
“I am eventually going to be an occupational therapist,” Walsh said. “I am going to be dealing with lymphedema no matter what setting I am in, so I think it’s very important to understand because lymphedema is not very well known.”
Walsh and the members of SOTA chose to create a competitive event to help draw a crowd of interprofessional medical students, as well as raise money for Garfield-Dadio’s foundation.
“We were trying to think of what would have the most outcome of people,” Walsh said. “Something competitive is really fun, especially for health-sciences majors because we all have that competitive edge.”
Junior OT major Michael Deluca said he wanted to support his major as well as Brace for L.I.F.E.
“We just learned about lymphedema in class,” Deluca said. “I thought it was a good idea to come out and learn more about this cause.”
While there were a majority of undergraduate students attending the event, graduate students also attended to support SOTA and Brace for L.I.F.E.
First-year graduate OT students Tara Dempsey and Arielle Ziering attended the event last year and wanted to continue to be involved.
Ziering said she knows numerous people who have breast cancer or are breast cancer survivors, and that this cause is always important to learn more about because of it’s prominence.
Dempsey feels it is important to remain educated on lymphedema and that Brace for L.I.F.E. is helping people remain educated on campus and in the community.
“We know what lymphedema is from learning about it in class,” Dempsey said. “But not every major gets that opportunity, so I think when people learn about our cause they become more educated in what we are all about.”
Garfield-Dadio said Brace for L.I.F.E. has “taken off” in the past year. She has created numerous fundraisers to promote the education of lymphedema, and hopes that eventually breast cancer survivors worldwide will be properly educated.
“When you’re told you have cancer, it’s the worst thing,” Garfield-Dadio said. “In their minds all they hear is that they could get (lymphedema), and they are only focusing on what they have and what they need to do to survive.”
Garfield-Dadio was inspired to create an organization educating people on lymphedema when her mother, a breast cancer survivor of 12 years, fell and hurt herself, and was treated on the affected side by Emergency Medical Technicians.
While her mother did not have any life threatening complications due to lymphedema, Garfield-Dadio believes that doctors should make an effort to properly explain how one can prevent lymphedema.
“When she had the breast cancer diagnosed it felt like a wave came over her,” Garfield-Dadio said. “They were telling her what to do and where to go, but they were not telling her what could happen down the road.”
Garfield-Dadio’s main goal is to have pink rubber bracelets that say “lymphedema precaution” on all emergency vehicles worldwide, so when they hear their patient is a breast cancer survivor, they can place that bracelet on the affected side to prevent treatment on the affected side.
The Brace for L.I.F.E. symbol is a pink life preserver with the pink breast cancer ribbon going through it, which Garfield-Dadio said is important for EMTs to be aware of the symbol on the bracelet when treating breast cancer survivors.
“We felt that the life preserver with the ribbon through it gave the breast cancer survivors the feeling that this is a life saver.” Garfield-Dadio said.
While October is breast cancer awareness month, Garfield-Dadio believes she could hold this fundraiser at any time during the year and it would still have the same impact.
“You see pink ribbons and you see that it’s breast cancer awareness month,” Garfield-Dadio said. “But does that mean that that’s the only time people have breast cancer? Not at all.”