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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

‘At 41 I had life-saving cancer surgery – and was left with a life-changing swelling condition’

At the age of 41, my life was turned upside down. Following a routine smear test in 2000, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cervical cancer. Sitting there in the doctor’s surgery in Yorkshire, I felt a wave of fear and devastation wash over me. How had I got cancer? Was I going to die? How would I tell my four children, my husband and my parents?  

Of course it wasn’t easy, these things never are, but everyone rallied round to help and I was determined I would stay positive and beat it. Within a month I underwent a radical hysterectomy followed by six weeks of daily radiotherapy. I was relieved to complete my treatment and even more so to be told the prognosis was good. But this was far from the end of it. 

Shortly afterwards, my left ankle and knee swelled out of proportion.

My doctor prescribed compression hosiery, telling me the swelling would “go down”. It did not. I struggled along for four years until we moved house, 80 miles away, to live on the east coast. That was when my GP referred me for lymphoedema treatment at a local hospice with a specialist nurse. 

Lymphoedema is a life-long incurable disease. Patients can be born with the condition or develop it following surgery. Often, arms or legs or both balloon in size, due to a build-up of lymphatic fluid. I’d had no inkling this could result from the removal of lymph nodes during my cancer surgery. But I have since learnt that this can indeed cause lymphoedema.

By the time I was diagnosed, my whole left leg was badly swollen. It was hard to find clothes to fit. My right leg was a size 12 and my left leg a size 20. I wore long, flared skirts and wide-fitting boots and trainers. I was very aware of stares from strangers every time I went out. 

My huge leg affected every area of my life, including my marriage. I felt like a freak and constantly pushed my husband away. We eventually divorced in 2007.

In many ways, lymphoedema has been worse than my cancer diagnosis. I had received the all-clear and beaten the death sentence – but now I had a life sentence: a chronic and debilitating illness.

I searched the internet for help and eventually found myself in London’s Harley Street, where Dr Puneet Gupta performed liposuction on my left leg. After three sessions, the results were life-changing.

That was eight years ago, and the surgery was funded by, and filmed for, Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies. Dr Gupta was amazed at the results – I was equally amazed. I felt so different afterwards. Everything changed, my mood lifted, and I began to feel more like my old, confident self again. I wore smart clothes and shoes, I no longer felt like a freak and was able to wear size 12 skinny jeans. I went to Florida with my grandchildren and taught them both to swim. In the pool, I felt confident and happy. I had missed out on so very much.

I first heard of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) massage at my local hospice. This specialist form of massage helps train the lymph system to drain more efficiently. As 15 lymph nodes were removed from my pelvic area during cancer surgery, my lymphatic system was badly impaired. I found the massage highly effective at helping to keep the swelling at bay.

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