Catherine Kontos is in the process of rebuilding her life. The life coach and single mother has been cancer free for five years, but like about a quarter of breast cancer patients, she is still battling a disfiguring, debilitating side effect of her cancer treatment, lymphedema.
Characterized by fluid retention and tissue swelling, lymphedema is an under recognized side effect brought on by a compromised lymphatic system. It commonly occurs in breast cancer patients because of the need to treat axillary nodes during surgery or radiotherapy. Catherine had fourteen lymph nodes removed on her right side, and underwent radiation there as well. She developed lymphedema one year after she began treatment for stage three breast cancer. Her right arm and hand ballooned in size, reducing her range of motion and making daily tasks difficult.
Lymphedema is a chronic, progressive illness. There is no cure, but patients can manage the condition, with help. That’s what Catherine has been able to do, with the help of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Breast Clinic’s Wellness Program.
The Breast Clinic, which is supported by the MUHC Foundation, cares for 15, 000 women every year, and it serves as a referral centre for women across the province. The Wellness Program provides prevention, treatment, psychological, and rehabilitation services, including highly specialized lymphedema care. Through the program, lymphedema patients are treated using targeted physical exercise to reduce the risk and treat the development of lymphedema.
“I was so desperate; I don’t know what I would have done,” remembers Catherine of those early days with lymphedema. “I learned of this program and I just said I need to be there. Before that, I didn’t know where to go and what to do, because I felt a little bit lost and alone.”
Breast Clinic Director Dr. Sarkis Meterissian, a breast surgeon at the MUHC who cares for women diagnosed with breast cancer, works closely with Kinesiologist Marie-Eve Letellier, PhD in Rehabilitation Science. Together they run the Wellness Program. Letellier creates customized exercise programs to meet individual patient’s needs. She also works closely with two specialized massage therapists, specifically trained in lymphedema treatments, at the Clinic.
“My practice has changed in the last ten years,” explains Letellier. “Before I was seeing patients and they were coming in with huge arms and we would have to use heavy bandages to control the swelling. Now we can focus a lot more on risk reduction. Patients are aware; we catch them and can intervene quite early.”
Massage therapist Linda Henry is part of Letellier’s team, and she has been treating Catherine’s lymphedema for several years. Through physical exercises and targeted massage, Henry helps to open up the lymphatic system. She also teaches Catherine how to massage herself at home, and how to wear compression sleeves that help to keep the swelling down.
“It is so rewarding to see a reduction in the swelling of the arm and to see the patient carry on with a normal life,” says Henry. “Everything just becomes easier for them.”
Catherine felt relief after her first session at the Clinic. She had been in constant pain, and after that initial treatment, she says the pain was reduced immediately. Her support extended beyond the physical as well.
“Linda is a great person to talk to. While she’s treating you, she’s very compassionate about what you are going through. She just knew exactly what to do,” recounts Catherine. “She saved me from a lot of suffering, and physical discomfort. I needed that extra help, that extra treatment and she was the one who took care of me.”
This October, in honour of breast cancer awareness month, join us at Enchantée, a cocktail dinatoire and silent auction in support of the MUHC Breast Clinic’s Wellness Program. Brigitte Bédard of TVA/LCN and Leslie Roberts from CJAD will host the event on October 18 at Le Mount Stephen.