A Lymphie’s Guide to the Workplace

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Ever since I graduated from college I’ve had the standard 9-5ish desk job. Translation = I spend at least 8 hours a day sitting at a desk. At one point it was more like 10 hours, but thankfully currently it’s a pretty solid 8.

We’ve all heard about the health hazards of sitting, but why is it harmful for lymphedema (particularly lower extremity lymphedema)? As I’ve mentioned before, the lymphatic system is twice the size of the cardiovascular system yet does not have it’s own pump (the cardiovascular system has the heart). So, the lymphatic system relies on help from outside sources: this help primarily comes from muscle movement that pushes the lymph through the body and gravity (when used to your advantage) encourages lymph fluid to be drained.

I’ve found that sitting has three major negative effects on lymph fluid flow:

  1. Creates blockages: One of the largest collections of lymph nodes are found in the groin. When you sit, the lymph nodes in your groin are compressed and a bent hose effect inhibits the flow of lymph fluid from the legs to the stomach (you know when you bend a hose and the water stops flowing? this is a similar idea).
  2. Gravity, gravity, gravity: When you sit, gravity works against any chance your lymph fluid had at getting from your toes to your stomach.
  3. Prolongs immobility: This last one is quite simple–when you’re sitting, you’re not moving. The more you move, the more you help lymph fluid flow through your body.

Through my years in a desk job, I’ve learned a thing or two about how best to manage my lymphedema. It has certainly been a game of trial and error (I seem to improve my approach with each new job) and I have yet to perfect my toolbox. So, please share your ideas! For now, below are one lymphie’s best advice for navigating a desk job:

1) Communicate

The first thing I recommend you do is tell the coworkers that matter to you that you have lymphedema (e.g. your boss, team, cubicle mates, work wife/husband, HR, etc.). As someone who has hidden in shame behind my condition, this was almost impossible at first but has become easier as time goes on. I now have no problem telling everyone I work with I have lymphedema. In fact, I have made a habit of including all of my coworkers on my emails for the annual fundraising walk for LE&RN. That said, I certainly don’t broadcast it to the world, but I have made a point of telling my boss and my team and have explained it further to those who are curious. It sometimes makes me feel more vulnerable than I want to be, but it makes it easier when I need to make accommodations in the name of my lymphedema.

But also, it can be liberating. Being open about my lymphedema has been particularly hard for me in the workplace, but through telling my story I have become infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. That’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for anything.

2) Elevate

Gravity makes the world go ’round, and it also helps lymph fluid go where it’s supposed to (or not). My favorite position to work in involves lounging on my bed with my legs propped up on a cushion, but alas, office cubicles do not allow for such a luxury. So, I do my best to elevate my legs as much as I can. I figure any elevation is better than nothing?

I own this small step stool and I keep it under my desk.

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I don’t think it works miracles, but it seems to be better than nothing. I’ve dreamed of getting something more like this, but it’s just so dang expensive.

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I also just stumbled upon this–has anyone ever tried it?

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3) Get up and MOVE

As I’ve mentioned above, movement is so very important for those with lymphedema (especially movement when you have your compression garments on!). I don’t know about you, but I find it all too easy to rarely ever leave my desk during the day. To make it worse, I usually bring my own lunch so it is not uncommon for me to not even leave my building! What a sad day.

To combat the easy trap of immobility, I wear a Fitbit (which motivates me to clock any extra steps I can find) and I try my best to make a point of a lunch-time/early afternoon walk. Sometimes this walk is just around the block, but if I have the time I aim for around 20 minutes. I come back with a clearer mind and a little better lymphatic flow :) I talk about how much I love my Fitbit here.

4) Store shoes at your desk

In my first job I learned one of the most valuable pieces of advice that any woman can give another in the workplace: keep work shoes in your desk. Although it may sound simple or silly, it was a revolutionary piece of advice for me! In my first job in NYC I would wear sneakers to work and carry my work shoes in my bag–once I realized I could just leave shoes at work, game changer :) This is not only great advice for anyone, but it is particularly valuable for those with lower extremity lymphedema.

I’ve found that most women who have a similar practice will wear flats to work and then break out the heels at work. I take it a step further and wear sneakers to work and have both flats (for the every day) and heels (for the extra special occasions) under my desk. The only shoe I am not at least some degree of miserable in are my oh so fashionable running sneakers. #whatevs So, in the name of being as comfortable as possible on my subway commute I forgo fashion and wear the good ole sneakers. AND, if you wear sneakers to work it makes it even more possible to go on that lunchtime walk :)

I definitely get made fun of for the number of shoes I keep under my desk (admittedly it’s gotten a bit unwieldy as of late), but I don’t care! My feet thank me :)

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5) Hydrate: lots and lots of H20

Water is my main squeeze (followed distantly by coffee and the occasional glass of milk). Staying hydrated helps to flush out all the unwanted stuff (really technical, I know). Gone are the days of just drinking 8 glasses of water a day: now they say you should take your weight in lbs, divide that in two, and that’s how many ounces of water a day you should drink.

Even though I love water, it’s hard to keep track of 100+ ounces of water a day, so I use my Fitbit app to track the water I drink. (There are tons of other water tracking apps, including this one that has a plant that grows as you drink more water.)

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Another added bonus of drinking a lot of water is that it requires you to frequent the restroom more often, which helps you with point #3 above.

I find that the only way I can even hope of drinking that water is to make sure I have a water bottle at work (I have two water bottles–one that stays at work and the other at home). I even carry this water bottle with me to all meetings. I have a medium-size glass water bottle (the one below), but I sometimes wish I had an even big one 😉 Nalgene anyone?

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6) Temperature control: buy a fan!

One of the never-ending conundrums of the office is the complete backwards sense of temperature control: in the winter it’s stuffy and hot, and then in the summer it’s freezing. As I’m sure you’ve all experienced, swelling of affected limbs gets worse in the heat. If I’m going to be hot or cold, I’ll take freezing cold any day. And if I’ve learned anything in my past few jobs, it is that if you are at all sensitive to temperature differences, you must take matters into your own hands!

I will always be grateful for the coworker (who didn’t have lymphedema, mind you) who told me that she had a fan under her desk. A FAN?! That just seemed silly to me. But let me tell you: it’s a life changer. The key is to buying a fan that fits easily under your desk, doesn’t make too much noise, and is adjustable in some way. I have this fan.

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I keep this fan under my desk year-round (you never know when it will be hot or stuffy in the office). Whenever I feel even a little too hot, I turn the fan on and direct it straight on my legs. Immediate relief!

7) Know your limits

And finally, only you know your body best and you must advocate for yourself. Long story short: in one of my previous jobs I was asked to go on a business trip that required I walk for 12 hours a day for 4 days straight in the Florida sun. At that point I was not very open about my lymphedema and hadn’t quite tested my limits in that way, so I went on the trip. And boy, do I regret it. I came home after the 4 days with my legs in the worst state they had ever been in (and a cellulitis scare to boot). I realized at that moment how important it was not only for HR to know about my condition, but for me to know it is up to me to stand up for myself.

You know your limits better than anyone else. Speak up for yourself, tell your story. You never know who else you might help along the way!

11 comments

  1. Diane says:

    Great article! Thank you for simple but important reminders. I have secondary lymphedema in my right leg. Two tips I want to share, first, my therapist gave me a chip bag. It is a 6-8 inch stocking type tube filled with a variety of small foam pieces of varying density. For work I am in the car all day on the road and I use the chip bag while I drive. I place it in the right inguinal node area to keep any garment or hose from cutting off circulation. This gives a mimicing sence of node massage to keep the nodes motivated to empty. I have also gone to wearing more skirts and dresses to work so I am not fighting the leg every morning. I also march in place when getting gas and once I arrive at my destination. The second tip to share with working in the south in heat actually came from my daughter whom is part of my support team at home. We were at a spring training baseball game last weekend in 90 degree heat. She recommended putting one of our ice packs on my thigh where the sun was beating down on my compression garment. The comfort and control of swelling I had over the next hour made the three hours of sun and heat with the family so much more enjoyable!! Hope someone can use these tips because we need to try multiple remedies before finding one that works well.

  2. Danielle D says:

    Thank you so much for telling your story… It was very helpful in many ways… I have lymphedema in both legs more so the left leg & I have the lymphedema real bad in my lower stomach area that is a train wreak on my back… It’s a struggle everyday.. I can’t even work no more & I loved to work… I have a Fitbit to & love it so that’s my work for now…

  3. Malena says:

    Just found your blog – I am seeing a specialist soon, but we think mine may be veinous something or other. Question – have you tried natural alternatives? A change in diet? Avoiding foods that cause inflammation and taking supplements or eating foods that are supposed to help inflammation? Just curious, as I’m looking for answers.

    • GracefulLymphedema says:

      Hi Malena! Glad you found my blog. I have tried all of the above with varying degrees of commitment. I came to the conclusion that the only way I was probably going to see a noticeable difference (as my swelling is quite mild) would be to go 200% on everything and be a total saint. Maybe I’ll do that someday, but for now not for me :) I highly HIGHLY recommend though eating a whole foods diet. It’s the best food you can put in your body. It’s also really important to be at a healthy weight–any extra lbs on the body put additional stress on an already stressed out lymphatic system.

      An easy way to tell if you have swelling due to lymph fluid backup is if it “pits” (see my post on my diagnosis). This means you moderately press a finger into the swelling and then it leaves an indentation (it will go away on its own). Hope that helps!

  4. Pam says:

    I have that foldaway tapestry footrest under my desk and I love it.
    I have right leg secondary Lymphedema.

    Great article. Can you do one on shoes? I can’t find any flats (ballet style of just plain black flats) that fit my swollen foot. Suggestions? I’m tired of wearing sandles with Velcro to dressier events.

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