The miracle that is the human body contains 11 organ systems, each of which has a unique function and depends, directly or indirectly, on all the others. These systems are the integumentary (skin), muscular, skeletal, nervous, circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine, urinary/excretory, reproductive and digestive.

The lymphatic system circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout the body, collecting bacteria, viruses and waste products. Lymph vessels carry the fluid and harmful substances to the lymph nodes located throughout the body. The wastes are then filtered out by infection-fighting white blood cells called lymphocytes and ultimately flushed from the body.

If the lymph vessels or lymph nodes are missing, impaired, damaged or removed, a condition known as lymphedema may result. Lymphedema is an abnormal buildup of fluid from the lymph nodes that causes swelling (edema), most often in the arms or legs.

The swelling may range from mild to severe and disfiguring. Primary or hereditary lymphedema is present at birth and may be caused by genetic mutation. It is estimated to affect one in every 6,000 individuals in the general population.

Secondary lymphedema develops as a result of damage to the lymphatic system caused by infection, disease or trauma. (Infection-related lymphedema is most common in tropical and subtropical regions and is more likely to occur in developing countries.)

Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the lymph nodes being removed or damaged as a part of cancer treatment. For example, lymph nodes may be removed to check for the spread of breast cancer, and lymph nodes may be injured in surgery that involves blood vessels in your limbs. Researchers estimate that in the U.S. cancer population of about 10 million, more than 121,000 experience lymphedema.

If cancer cells block lymphatic vessels, lymphedema may result. For instance, a tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel could enlarge enough to block the flow of the lymph fluid. Radiation treatment for cancer can cause scarring and inflammation of the lymph nodes or lymph vessels.

Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause of lymphedema in the United States. Cancer-related lymphedema can affect the face, neck, abdomen and genitals, in addition to the arms and legs, depending on the part of the body that was treated.

Lymphedema can lead to a number of complications, including infection, disfigurement, pain, disability, depression and difficulty with the activities of daily living. It can occasionally prove fatal.

There is no cure for lymphedema at this time, but the condition can be effectively managed, thus significantly reducing pain, discomfort and risk. That's where Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) Janet Weiser of Fawcett Memorial Hospital comes in.

In treating lymphedema, Weiser employs Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT), which has been called the "gold standard for lymphedema management," combined with Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD). The two-phase program basically involves bandaging or wrapping swollen legs or arms, coupled with exercise and skin care.

The goal of Phase I is to decrease the swelling in the limb to normal size, or as close to normal as possible, while maintaining healthy skin. Phase II involves maintaining the results seen in Phase I.

Weiser evaluates her patients and makes an assessment before embarking on a course of treatment.

"You may start with short stretch bandages, or compression alternatives, which can be more of a Velcro system," she said, "and compression stockings can be used as well.

"We determine the right fit for each individual when it comes to compression and following the guidelines for complete decongestant therapy," she noted. "We provide the manual lymph drainage, which is a light massage that redirects the fluid from affected extremities, or the face, or the trunk and helps drain the excess fluid from the system."

Weiser helps her patients select the proper compression garments, skin-softening methods and exercises. She urges them to adopt a lymphedema management routine as a means of controlling the condition.

"Leading them toward the right compression sleeve can prevent flare-ups during air travel," she said. "Insect bites and heavy activity can also lead to the onset or worsening of lymphedema. For those whose lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, activity you're not used to can put an overload on your remaining, healthy lymph nodes."

Patients can receive personalized physical therapy on an outpatient basis at the fully equipped Sports and Rehab center. Exercise makes the muscles contract and pushes lymph fluid through the lymph vessels. The center is a huge structure that features all manner of exercise equipment, including a pool.

For more information on the lymphedema program at Fawcett, contact Janet Weiser at (941) 764-1333.