The Joys and Distresses of Gardening (and the lessons I have learned)

I love gardening and can get lost in that activity for hours, especially during springtime. Weeding, planting, and trimming give me an opportunity to experience the many wonderful sights and sounds associated with nature. Gardening has also brought me some distressing times. 

Besides having a sore back, I never considered gardening a risky activity. When going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, I spent a beautiful October afternoon working out in the yard. I felt joyous! During a break, I noticed that my left hand was swollen. With a sinking feeling, I knew that I had lymphedema. Gardening didn’t cause my lymphedema, removal of my lymph nodes did. Mowing the lawn, weeding, and sweeping the porch pushed my compromised lymphatic system over the edge. At my subsequent visit to my therapist, she told me that many of her patients’ first sign of lymphedema swelling is right after they have been gardening. 

Just because gardening was the impetus for my swelling, it didn’t mean I had to quit gardening. I wasn’t ready to quit any of the activities I enjoyed in my life (hiking, bicycling, traveling, backpacking). It meant some changes had to be made.  I had to get used to the idea of having lymphedema and how to live successfully with it.

I became aware of what activities made my left arm swell more. I started to maintain a daily habit of giving myself manual lymphatic drainage, wearing a compression garment during the day and wearing a night-time garment while sleeping. Initially these life-style changes bummed me out but gradually and eventually I’ve adjusted. I learned to become comfortable with my lymphedema and not get unduly distressed with some increased swelling. I observed that, with proper care, the swelling went down. I become an advocate for myself and became informed about the strides in research being made in lymphedema. Some examples, I had a lymph node transfer, started using a pump, and sought out specialists in lymphedema (even if it meant traveling out of state).

Gardening also made me acutely aware of cellulitis, a condition that people with lymphedema are prone to develop. One evening after working in the garden, I noticed my left thumb was red and tender. A bit of panic rose inside me because I knew enough about cellulitis that it had to be addressed immediately. Like most urgent issues, this happened in the evening so my husband drove me to the emergency room. Instead of waiting for the doctor to tell me what he thought was going on, I told him about my lymphedema, the likely possibility that I had cellulitis, and that antibiotics should be started asap in order to prevent the infection from spreading. Fortunately, I had a patient and understanding physician. He gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and sent me on my way. The cellulitis was nipped in the bud and I haven’t had an episode since. 

There are two things I do now since my incident with cellulitis. I always have antibiotics on hand or a prescription for one. The second is, I always wear latex gloves underneath my gardening gloves. This gives me an extra layer of protection. 

At first, lymphedema had a hold of me. With proper care, knowledge and support, I now have control of my lymphedema. I’m doing all the activities I’ve always enjoyed and have added some new ones, like swimming and oil painting. I’ve learned to live well with lymphedema.

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