HNCA Ambassador and Oral Cancer Survivor, Jacki Rogozinski, Shares Her Experience with Lymphedema (Part 1)

Several months after my neck dissection surgery and 30 radiation treatments, I began feeling increased tightness of my jaw and saw a noticeable puffiness of my face. Of course, it’s normal to have swelling immediately after any surgery, but that initial swelling had resolved within a week or so after the operation. The stiffness in my neck and jaw had definitely increased, even though I was doing my daily stretching exercises.

Eleven years before my diagnosis, my mom endured lengthy treatment for cervical and uterine cancer and, thankfully, had survived the ordeal. As part of her treatment, many lymph nodes were removed from her groin which led to uncomfortable swelling in her legs and the need for daily compression wraps. That’s when I first became aware of “lymphedema”.

At first, I didn’t make the connection between my mom’s experience and my own. I’d had 33 lymph nodes removed from the left side of my neck; but I thought lymphedema only affected the extremities, like my mom’s legs or breast cancer patients’ arms that swelled after lymph nodes were removed from the armpits. I soon learned that lymphedema is quite common among head and neck cancer survivors.

What is Lymphedema?

A very simple way to think about lymphedema is to compare it to a traffic jam. Normally, traffic flows along streets, roads and highways taking people where they need to go for daily tasks, jobs and functions. When that normal flow is interrupted by a stalled vehicle or a traffic accident, cars pile up behind it and prevent everyone from getting to their important daily business.

A slightly more scientific explanation: the lymphatic system is a highly complex network of vessels, tissues and organs that plays a major role in our immune system. It transports lymph, a colorless fluid containing proteins and infection-fighting white blood cells, through the body and helps get rid of waste and unwanted toxins. Lymph is transported through lymph nodes and returned to the bloodstream.

For many cancer patients, the lymphatic system becomes damaged by treatment, mainly surgery and radiation. That damage interrupts the normal return of lymph to the bloodstream, like a freeway accident causing traffic to back up, Without the proper pathways, the lymph collects in the soft tissue, resulting in lymphedema.

As many as 75% of head and neck cancer patients will experience lymphedema to some degree. Although there is no cure, lymphedema can be managed with proper intervention. Unfortunately, many patients don’t receive the proper treatment for the condition which leads to exacerbated side effects and decreased quality of life.

Coming Soon in Part 2: Jacki shares techniques that helped her manage her lymphedema.

Jacki Rogozinski
Healthcare Sales & Marketing Professional
Survivor of Stage IV Oral Cancer
Austin, TX

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Watching someone you love battle cancer is scary and heartbreaking… After three weeks of treatment, his voice was gone, and his throat was too sore to talk on the phone. Not being able to see him or talk to him while he was going through treatment was excruciating.Julie Bockoff
Patient Caregiver of Stage IV Tonsil Cancer Patient

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