Becky Sharp is a breast cancer survivor suffering from lymphedema, which affects her right arm, right leg, and torso. “I had breast cancer, and I had radiation, and right after that, I got lymphedema, even though I was supposedly at low risk,” she says.
For most, lymphedema is an incurable but manageable condition that causes some discomfort, swelling, and limited flexibility, but for others, the condition can be crippling or even deadly. Becky has been lucky that she is able to get the treatment she needs, but she’s known others who have not had very favorable outcomes.
“Some go into sepsis. We’ve had friends who’ve died from complications from lymphedema,” she says, “and the garments may have helped alleviate that.”
According to Amy White, who is a physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist, there are four parts to proper lymphedema treatment: special exercises, skin care, a type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage, and compression garments. Compression garments can be expensive, however, leaving many lymphedema patients unable to afford them or having to choose between compression garments and other types of therapy, such as massage.
“The research studies have shown that all four components need to be done to successfully manage the lymphedema,” says Amy, “so if only one or two are completed, your outcomes are not going to be what you want them to be.”
The reason for the high cost of compression garments lies in the fact that the compression grade is different in different parts of the garment to encourage fluid to move in the correct direction. Patients can’t simply wear tight sleeves or socks; they have to purchase a medical garment made specifically for their condition. Compression garments also have to be replaced about every six months to ensure that they don’t stretch out and become less compressive over time from being worn.
“We want the compression to be highest at the hand, and then it lessens as it goes up to the top,” says Amy. “That will promote the fluid going from the lower area up to the higher area.”
In an effort to make compression garments more affordable and encourage lymphedema patients to get proper treatment to avoid the devastating and potentially deadly effects of poorly controlled lymphedema, Becky and a group of others are lobbying Congress to try to get Medicare to pay for the garments.
“It’s called the Lymphedema Treatment Act,” says Becky. “All it is we want Medicare to have a code to pay for the garments. If Medicare will do it, then all the insurances will follow.”
Amy says covering the cost—or even part of the cost—of compression sleeves under Medicare would give patients access to better care for lymphedema and even encourage them to seek treatment they might not have otherwise.
Check out the video below to learn more about the importance of compression garments.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?