Breast cancer survivor advocates for lymphedema patients

February 22, 2022 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

When life throws you a curve ball, you can either let it consume you or you can make the best of it. Crystal Stevenson, 51, of Woodridge chose the latter.

Throughout her life, Stevenson knew that she had a family history of breast cancer. She made sure to conduct a self-breast examination twice a month.

One month, a lump appeared.

“At first I thought I had gotten bitten by something,” she says. “It was pretty substantial.”

Her routine mammogram was scheduled a few weeks later. An ultrasound confirmed her suspicion: two cancerous lumps were detected within dense breast tissue.

Joseph Kash, M.D., hematologist and oncologist with Edward Hematology Oncology Group, discussed with her several treatment options. Stevenson knew she didn’t want to roll the dice. She scheduled a double mastectomy a short time later.

“I knew enough about my family history to know there was no other option for me,” she says. “I wanted to do everything that would prevent the cancer from returning.”

Genetic testing reaffirmed her decision. A blood test confirmed she had the BRAC1 gene, which put her at an increased risk of the cancer returning. After a double mastectomy, she went through chemotherapy, radiation therapy, breast reconstruction and physical therapy.

Throughout her treatment, Stevenson made sure her diagnosis did not stop her from living her life.

She kept busy, raising four children with her husband while continuing to work her corporate job in downtown Chicago. She was also taking massage therapy courses at a local community college to fulfill a passion.

“I had a day job that I was excited about, but I was also looking forward to a new career,” she says.

While undergoing chemotherapy, Stevenson focused on self-care. This is when she was introduced to the power of oncology massage.

“My first oncology massage was life-changing. So many people treat you like you are fragile while you are going through treatment. After my massage, I knew I wanted to use my massage therapy skills to give cancer patients the power of touch,” she says.

A year after her treatment ended, Stevenson had to overcome another obstacle. She began suffering from lymphedema, a side effect from having her lymph nodes removed during her treatment that caused pain and swelling in her arm.

“It was discouraging to have worked so hard on a new career path and then to not be able to enjoy what I had learned.”

At Stevenson’s one-year follow-up appointment, her radiation oncologist Oh-Hoon Kwon, M.D., suggested she see an occupational therapist who works exclusively with lymphedema patients.

Cheryl Losik, OT, suggested Stevenson wear an over-the-counter compression sleeve for her arm. The sleeve worked, but did not completely resolve her issue. Losik recommended she try a custom garment measured precisely to her arm during the day, as well as a custom nighttime sleeve that she could sleep in to reduce her pain and swelling after massage therapy class in the evenings. The custom sleeve made a world of difference.

“I would have my massage therapy class in the evening, wear the custom sleeve at night and see Cheryl the next day. She could see after I wore the sleeve, the swelling went down substantially.”

The new sleeve helped her find relief in her discomfort and swelling so that she was able to continue to take classes to finish her massage therapy certification.

“The pain has gotten so much better,” she says. “I am so thankful to Cheryl for introducing me to this new treatment option.”

Stevenson recently graduated with a certification in massage therapy and is taking classes to help others through oncology massage. She’s working toward  certification to provide lymphatic massages specifically for lymphedema patients later this year.

“I am a firm believer that when you are aligned with what you are supposed to be doing, everything falls into place. I want to continue to advocate for people by telling them the benefits of a custom sleeve and how massage can help. I want to create a roadmap for others to feel better and help relieve their pain,” she says.

Learn more about lymphedema therapy.

Learn more about the Breast Cancer Center at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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