Cancer Survivor Providing Support With Style to Others Living With Lymphedema

Kristine Madzia and Family

Soon after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, Kristine Madzia made a decision.

“I was feeling depressed, and my husband—the most amazing caregiver—told me I couldn’t give up,” Madzia, 35, says. “I decided that, from that moment on, I’d give everything I had to fighting this so my sons would know I gave it my all and would do the same with whatever they’re faced with in life.”

This perseverance, along with the support of her family (husband Matt and her sons Henry, 9, and Emmett, 5) and friends, helped Madzia remain motivated and upbeat through surgery and recovery.

Her determination has also been on display as she lives with the lingering effects of lymphedema—a chronic condition that can cause painful swelling of the arms, fingers, legs and toes—and has led her to a new role as a partner in pain relief for others facing similar challenges.

Diagnosis leads to decision

Madzia was just 31-years old when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and immediately referred to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) under the care of David O’Malley, MD.

“He’s an amazing doctor and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” she says.

Madzia worked with her doctors to choose a treatment plan and ultimately settled on radical hysterectomy surgery, in which the cervix and uterus are removed.

“We did want a bigger family, but I decided it was more important to make sure that I was there for my two boys. It was a very hard decision because you feel as if someone was missing who you would have liked to have been here,” she says. “I was fortunate that my cancer was in an organ that can be removed. Some people aren’t as lucky.”

A new challenge

The difficult choice produced the desired result, preventing the cancer from spreading. However, the successful surgery was soon followed by a new challenge: pain and swelling in her legs caused by lymphedema, which most commonly occurs with breast cancer but also affects other patients who have lymph nodes removed during treatment—a group that includes Madzia.

“I started noticing heaviness in my feet, and my legs swelled, and it was really hard to move around,” says Madzia, who underwent six weeks of physical therapy at the OSUCCC – James, including exercises and massages designed to reduce her symptoms.

“It helped reduce the swelling in my thighs by 12 inches in diameter in each of my legs.”

Despite the therapy’s significant results, Madzia still experiences some swelling and pain. She treats the discomfort with a leg compression machine, an air compressor attached to an inflatable garment that covers the legs, dubbed “squeezy pants” by her children.

The business of support

Many lymphedema patients wear compression sleeves for several hours a day to reduce swelling. Because lymphedema is much more common in the arms than in the legs, it can be difficult to find compression garments for the legs—and even harder to get some that are fashionable, Madzia says.

And so, this determined patient started a company, Mdema Medical, that sells compression garments for the legs online. She’s also active on social media and has formed friendships with other women treated for cervical cancer who are dealing with lymphedema.

“There can be a lot of shame in wearing compression garments. Dr. O’Malley described it to me early on as losing someone you love and then having to wear their favorite shirt every day,” Madzia says. “It’s a reminder of your surgery and treatment and what you’re going through. My goal is to connect with other women going through what I’m going through and be a resource for them.

Lifestyle changes with an eye toward the future

In addition to the compression garments—and with some help from her OSUCCC – James team—Madzia has formed some healthy habits that help her address the symptoms of lymphedema while increasing her chances of remaining cancer-free well into the future.

Among those healthy choices was a switch to a plant-based diet, which she made after sessions with OSUCCC – James nutritionists.

“This reduces the risk of a (cancer) reoccurrence,” Madzia says. “I took some cooking classes (at the OSUCCC – James) and learned how to make healthier meals.”

To deal with the difficulties presented by lymphedema, Madzia has increased her physical activity, including daily trips up and down 18 flights of stairs at her office.

“It’s really pushed me to remain active and exercise and take care of my legs.”