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Overcoming Emotional Challenges

Lymphedema’s Impact

People throughout the province of Ontario were surveyed about lymphedema. The study concluded, “Although some patients told us they were made aware of the condition by their doctors, the implications were minimized….The women we spoke to feel their life, as they knew it, was changed forever. In many aspects, the challenge of lymphedema is worse for patients on an emotional level. Cancer has a beginning and an end, whereas lymphedema is chronic and goes on and on. Yet little was done to address the emotional impact for lymphedema patients.”


For 59% of cancer survivors, changes in appearances are a big issue. You can decrease self-consciousness through your emotions, thoughts, and actions.

Foster positive feelings about your body. It is doing the best you can. In return, can you respond with gratitude and respect for the many ways your body still functions well and with sympathy for its struggles? Offer it your loving care. Enter into a partnership with it.

Notice thoughts that reduce feelings of self-consciousness. Some people find it helpful to tell themselves “I am more than my physical body. I am not my lymphedema.” Focus on all the other facets of you that make you the unique person you are.

Move forward with your life. Even though it can be hard, don’t withdraw. Don’t avoid people, places, things, or activities just because you aren’t perfect.

Reason for Hope

Research shows that your level of discomfort has very little to do with how much actual disfigurement you have and that when others seem uncomfortable, they’re often responding more to your actions and manner than to your appearance. As you feel more comfortable with yourself, others will as well.

Try the following: Keep your head up. Deliberately make eye contact; smile and nod. Adopt a confident, friendly, relaxed body posture. Reflect friendly confidence in your tone of voice. Practice in advance how you choose to respond to questions about your lymphedema.

The Emotional Side of Lymphedema

As discussed in detail in Overcoming the Emotional Challenges of Lymphedema, common emotional responses include feeling overwhelmed, sad, angry, scared, worried, resentful, self-conscious, ashamed, or stressed. Such normal, distressing feelings can be handled particularly well if you remember three key points:

  1. Upsetting feelings are normal, but can be lessened.
  2. You don’t have to be the helpless victim of emotion.
  3. Since some responses work better than others, the more you know, the more successfully you’ll cope.

Nine Tips for Effective Coping

Actively Take Charge. Don’t wait for others to fix you. Honestly, you can’t afford helplessness when it comes to lymphedema. Tackle your challenges and work toward your goals. Even if you don’t achieve them, you’ll make progress.

Educate Yourself. Identify and prioritize the problems you face, then find the information to solve or cope with them. Lymphedema associations, websites, support groups, and books such as Living Well With Lymphedema can help.

Focus on Finding Solutions. Keep asking questions until you find answers. Communicate. Negotiate. Problem-solve.

Notice What Works. Notice positive changes toward your goal, however small or fleeting at first. Track of changes and look for patterns. Focus on your progress and successes.

Educate and Help Others. Research on happiness finds that sustained happiness comes from leading an engaged, meaningful life. Teaching and mentoring others helps you clarify what you know. It engages your mind and your spirit.

Find Lymphedema-Safe Activities or Alternatives. With lymphedema (and with normal aging), your body simply doesn’t work way it used to. So when an activity no longer works with your body, find an alternative. Adapt or replace. Maybe this means you do water exercise instead of aerobics, or use protective gloves when cooking and gardening.

Face Your Fears. Whatever you fear, you are better off facing it head on because many fears are false alarms and by coping with our fears, we become stronger. Support and encourage yourself. Applaud yourself for your courage in facing difficulties.

Treat Setbacks as Opportunities for Growth. We grow more through challenges, failures, and difficult times than we do through easy, comfortable times. As the saying goes, “Every problem comes bearing a gift in its hands.” Although the lymphedema is a negative, coping well with it may lead to positives such as increased knowledge, empathy, and discipline. Since you have lymphedema for better or for worse, what positives could you create out of having it?

Find Inspiring Examples of Success. Find role models for dealing with lymphedema or with life’s difficulties generally. Voices of Lymphedema is filled with stories of practical coping, humor, and hope such as the following: “I am better, stronger and more resilient than I ever was before. My body is an educational tool. I will continue to share my challenges and successes with others in hopes they can rise to the occasion and share their story with others too.”

In Conclusion

You can become better, stronger, and more resilient. As Helen Keller once wrote, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

For More Information:

These books are available through Amazon Canada ( or Chapters (

Living Well With Lymphedema – Ehrlich, Vinje-Harrewijn, & McMahon. San Francisco: Lymph Notes, 2005.

Overcoming the Emotional Challenges of Lymphedema – McMahon. San Francisco: Lymph Notes, 2006.

Voices of Lymphedema – (Eds.) Ehrlich & McMahon. San Francisco: Lymph Notes, 2007.

Lymphedema Caregiver’s Guide: Arranging and Providing Home Care – Kearse, McMahon, & Ehrlich. San Francisco: Lymph Notes, 2009.

Dr McMahon works as a clinical psychologist in Fremont, California and has 30 years experience helping patients, many with chronic medical conditions. She became particularly interested in lymphedema after a family member developed the condition post-mastectomy. She serves on the editorial advisory board of, an online information resource and support group for persons with lymphedema, their family and friends, and for lymphedema therapists.

In addition to lymphedema-related topics, she speaks on preventing personal burnout, overcoming life challenges, decreasing anxiety, and increasing personal happiness. See

“Overcoming Emotional Challenges” appeared in In the Flow, British Columbia Lymphedema newsletter, 2(1): 8-9, Spring 2010.