While many people are aware that one in eight Australian women and one in 700 Australian men are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, many are unaware of another life-long diagnosis that can come as a result of breast cancer treatment.
For 62-year-old Vicki Spanring, being diagnosed with lymphoedema after undergoing surgery and a mastectomy of her left breast, as well as undergoing six months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, was the last thing she was expecting. Lymphoedema is an incurable condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissue. The condition develops as a result of the lymphatic system failing to work properly and impacts up to 30 per cent of all women who have undergone breast cancer surgery.
It most commonly effects the arms and legs and causes painful swelling as well as a rash and dimpled skin in some cases.
“When my doctor diagnosed me I thought why me? Again?” Vicki explained to Starts at 60. “He gave me a compression sleeve, it was uncomfortable and ugly – it made me feel like a burn’s victim.”
Lymph nodes are usually removed during breast cancer surgery or can be damaged by radiotherapy. When lymph nodes are removed or damaged in breast cancer treatment, it can restrict the natural flow of fluid from the breast to the arms, which causes lymphoedema.
“During chemo my lymph nodes had banded together so I could no longer straighten my arm or raise it above my head,” Vicki explained. “Even getting my left arm into my cardigan had proved to become an issue.”
Her doctor gave her a thick beige compression sleeve to help with the swelling in her arm, but Vicki said it felt heavy and made her feel uncomfortable in her own body.
She wanted to wear something that made her feel happy every time she put it on so she began importing vibrant sleeves for herself that were covered in colourful patterns and bright colours. She quickly saw a gap in the market for other women in the same situation and soon launched her own business, Lymphedonna, as a way of boosting the confidence of breast cancer survivors who had also been diagnosed with lymphoedema.
“I saw a gap in the market, and knew that surely, I wasn’t the only Lymphoedema sufferer that felt like this, so I began importing amazing sleeves of various colours, textures and patterns and just like that Lymphedonna was born,” Vicki recalled.
She eventually partnered with the National Breast Cancer Foundation and offered her sleeves to women online and through relevant support groups. She ran the business for seven years but retired two years ago, selling it to a physiotherapist who specialises in assisting lymphoedema patients.
Eight years after her initial cancer diagnosis, Vicki is now in the clear. She joined the National Breast Cancer Foundation Speaker Network – a network for passionate and inspiring speakers who have been impacted by breast cancer.
“Through the use of personal storytelling, I help people understand the crucial role of breast cancer research and the work that NBCF does to fund Australian-based research projects,” she said. “Talking to anybody and everybody! Talking about my experience really helped me through this entire process.”
She explained that the National Breast Cancer Foundation is hoping there will be zero breast cancer deaths in Australia by 2030 and that vital research is important to make this happen.
“In October, Aussies can also raise funds by hosting a Pink Ribbon Breakfast,” Vicki concluded. “Whether it’s an intimate breakfast at home, an office morning tea event, or a large scale community event – any Pink Ribbon Breakfast makes a big impact.”