Shame and Lymphedema

Brene Brown, a shame researcher at the University of Houston, defines shame as an "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." This emotion can profoundly shape how we react to illness, and it happens to all of us. According to Brown, shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.  

The exact emotion caused me to judge my weight gain after 9 surgeries, 5 months of chemo, and 30 cycles of radiation, and not mention it to my healthcare provider. I had gained 46 pounds. My shame told me I was fat and a cancer "loser." I couldn't have been more wrong. Five years after treatment, I discovered lymphedema in my arms and abdomen all along. 

 The American Cancer Institute defines lymphedema as a build-up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under your skin. It often happens in the arms or legs, BUT it can also occur in the FACE, neck, trunk, and abdomen (BELLY) or genitals. This build-up can cause swelling and discomfort. The lymphatic system doesn't have its own pump like our circulatory system. Therefore, physical activity encourages fluid to drain into the more extensive lymphatic system. Walking, swimming, yoga, pelvic floor exercises, and jumping on a mini-trampoline can make a tremendous difference. Like all physical activity, check with your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise routine.

What I didn't know is that:

  • Lymphedema can happen after major surgeries like mastectomy, and fat transfer, which can disturb and injure your lymph nodes.
  • Sometimes with mastectomy, the unaffected side can have worse lymph node damage than the side with cancer.
  • Insurance doesn't necessarily cover all the treatments needed to keep it in check.
  • Wearing compression garments when exercising can help.
  • Slowly progressive weight lifting can reduce lymphedema flares 
  • A BMI over 30 at the time of surgery increases the likelihood of developing lymphedema by 3.6x.
  • Losing weight and maintaining an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce flare-up incidence by 44%

Secrecy, silence, and judgment are inauthentic responses. Shame can either shut us down or lead us to a new sense of bravery and authenticity. One byproduct of being able to move through shame constructively is that people come out the other side feeling braver, more connected, and compassionate. With that in mind, I share my story. After seeking treatment through exercise, compression garments, dry brushing, and Gua Sha and a weight loss specialist, I lost 46 pounds. I have created the Soul Agency Lymphatic Support Box so you can enjoy the benefits of mindful healing as I have. 

Check out our Giving Partner UNC Cancer Rehabilitation Institute for more information:

The UNC Cancer Rehabilitation Institute has helped thousands regain quality of life, reduce depression, attenuate fatigue, improve cardiovascular function, enhance muscular performance and increase flexibility and balance.

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