In 2004, 17-year-old Alison Mahoney was diagnosed with lymphedema, a condition that causes swelling in one or both of arms or legs. There isn’t a cure for the condition, and Mahoney has used a compression garment to treat it. This treatment involves squeezing her entire swollen left leg into a wrap of sorts.
Mahoney’s diagnosis and treatment took a toll on her confidence, making her self-conscious about her appearance. But she eventually learned to embrace her body after her diagnosis and has accomplished much since she first learned she had lymphedema. The Daily Mail reports that Mahoney has participated in half marathons, an Olympic distance triathlon, and a sprint triathlon—all while wearing her compression wrap.
Mahoney’s story highlights the fact that a highly active lifestyle is still possible after a lymphedema diagnosis. Around 180 to 250 million people worldwide have the condition, according to the Alberta Lymphedema Network (ALNET). “However, prevalence is often underestimated due to inconsistent clinical detection and definition, as well as inadequate disease tracking,” a statement from ALNET says.
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So how does the condition occur? It can be caused by damage to or the removal of your lymph nodes, the Mayo Clinic says. “It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.” Lymphedema is a common side effect of cancer treatment.
Early diagnosis of the condition as well as careful management of the affected limb or limbs can help patients control the condition, for which there is no cure.
The use of a compression garment is one of a number of available treatment options. Another option is massage. “A special massage technique called manual lymph drainage may encourage the flow of the lymph fluid out of your arm or leg,” the Mayo Clinic explains. However, that treatment won’t work for everyone, and patients with blood clots or a skin infection should avoid it.
A different treatment option is called pneumatic compression. The Mayo Clinic describes the way it works: “A sleeve worn over your affected arm or leg connects to a pump that intermittently inflates the sleeve, putting pressure on your limb and moving lymph fluid away from your fingers or toes.”
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Another treatment, which Mahoney is certainly familiar with, is exercise. “Light exercises in which you move your affected limb may encourage lymph fluid drainage and help prepare you for everyday tasks, such as carrying groceries. Exercises shouldn’t be strenuous or tire you out but should focus on gentle contraction of the muscles in your arm or leg,” Mayo Clinic says.
Mahoney told the Daily Mail that exercising has helped her tremendously. “Fitness and working out has helped build my confidence,” she told the outlet.
“I love how I feel after I work out. Basically, I think, ‘OK, so you have something wrong, but it’s not like you can’t move.’ Plus, exercise helps move lymphatic fluid and keeps me healthy, so that is a win-win,” she added.
In addition to marathons, Mahoney has gotten into bodybuilding. “Doing the bodybuilding competition really helped me out of my shell and got me to really open up and hold my head high regardless of my disease. The bodybuilding community was also very supportive and encouraging. The day of the competition everyone was so kind. I never felt judged or looked down on for having lymphedema.”
Mahoney, now 32, has perfected a message of true body positivity while taking control of her wellbeing: “Everyone has something wrong with them. Get help, learn to manage it, and, then, get on with your life.”