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July 2, 2010 > Learning to Live with Lymphedema

Learning to Live with Lymphedema

Twelve days before Bobbie Vannucci was scheduled to leave for Italy, where she planned to meet relatives she had never seen, she met a girlfriend for lunch. In addition to sharing a good time, they split a liter bottle of water. When it was time to part, Vanucci went to the restroom, but found that she could not to relieve herself. She went to her doctor thinking it was only a bladder infection. That was the first symptom she had of what, six days later, landed her on the operating table for removal of ovarian and fallopian tube cancer. Vannucci's appendix and the lymph nodes in the surrounding area were also excised.

"The cancer was contained within a large tumor, and just to be safe I was also prescribed chemotherapy," says Vannucci. "My family and friends were in disbelief, but extremely loving and supportive. I'm single so it was tremendously important to feel connected with loving spirits and their never-ending prayers."

Lymphedema Strikes

About three-and-a-half years following surgery Vannucci developed cellulitis, a skin inflammation, in her left leg. A few months later she took a spill on a concrete step and injured the same leg.

"The leg became so swollen I could not even wear compression stockings," she says. "I was diagnosed with lymphedema and went to a clinic in Walnut Creek, where they wrapped me from toes to hip in bandages for three weeks to bring down the inflammation."

Vannucci could be on her feet for only short periods of time, and she would have to stop and elevate her legs for relief. After the inflamed condition subsided somewhat, she was fitted for the proper-size compression stockings.

"But the pain and debilitation continued with a "wild roller-coaster ride of ups and downs, sideways spins and the feeling that these symptoms were literally consuming me," she says. "I felt as though my active, normal life had been destroyed by this insidious ailment."

Finding Relief at Washington Hospital

Nearly six-years after her cancer surgery, Vannucci credits Washington Hospital's Lymphedema Clinic and lymphedema therapist Tina Hammond with renewing her ability to lead a vital, busy life.

"A friend of mine told me about Washington Hospital's Lymphedema Services and after going there to attend my initial lymphedema class, I began to feel that there might be hope, after all," she recalls. "I began treatment, which included an hour on the Flexitouch compression machine each time I had an appointment with Hammond over a period of three months."

Hammond, a Lymphology Association of North America-certified lymphedema therapist, (LANA) says the sooner a patient starts treatment after the onset of lymphedema, the better the outcome.

"Treatment involves special massage techniques to redirect the lymph through alternate pathways in the body, she says. "Lymphedema patients also can wear compression garments, called sleeves or stockings, to relieve discomfort."

Importance of Education

"Hammond also provided me with countless articles and other information on lymphedema along with her constant love and support," Vannucci says. "Her consultations helped me understand this condition and provided me with a bright, new outlook on life and living with lymphedema."

The Lymphedema Clinic offers an education series twice a month to anyone who is interested in learning more about the lymph system and lymphedema.

"We offer extensive patient education, since our goal is to teach patients to manage the condition themselves," Hammond says. "In addition, we offer educational services to medical professionals to increase awareness of lymphedema. We also encourage physicians to refer cancer patients to us prior to any surgery so that we can teach the patients how best to prevent lymphedema."

Moving Forward

"I've acquired my own Flexitouch machine and use it every day. It has given me back my life. It's a joy that's hard to describe," Vannucci says. "I can actually feel my circulation again."

One new experience for Vannucci has been to get a King Charles spaniel, naming him "Vinni." Vinni, after passing stringent requirements, is a certified therapy dog and Vannucci takes him to a wide variety of events where he works as a healer for both children and adults. The two work under the auspices of Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation, also known as ARF, La Russa, of baseball fame, co-founded the Animal Rescue Foundation in Walnut Creek, California, and remains committed to the cause as chairman of the board.

One of Vannucci and Vinni's favorite places to visit is Camp Arroyo in Livermore, where they work their magic with disabled and terminally ill children. "The children love to pet Vinni and he knows these children are very special. He nuzzles them, then brings laughs and joy as he entertains them with his very funny tricks," says Vannucci. "Of course, he has his own business cards so the children will have a memento of him. It's all about love, and he makes sure it's sprinkled all around."

As for the future, Vannucci and Vinni plan to continue their very important animal therapy work, but Vannucci also wants to offer her services to the Lymphedema Research Foundation and tell her story to other people who have bravely survived cancer and now are learning to live with lymphedema.

Find Out More About Lymphedema

The Lymphedema Services staff at Washington Hospital is certified to treat lymphedema patients, helping each patient learn how to manage the condition and keep it under control. Through special massage techniques and knowledge of the latest treatment options, certified lymphedema therapists and physical therapists help sufferers regain control and take their lives back. The Lymphedema Education Class takes place the second and fourth Tuesday every month from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Washington Women's Center Conference Room located at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West) in Fremont. Visit or call (510) 795-2058 for more information.

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