Long-time Palisadian physiatrist, Lymphedema Center founder and California Lymphatic Education & Research Network California Chapter Vice Chairperson Dr. Emily Iker has lived with the effects of lymphedema for decades.
Iker found out she had lymphedema while in surgical residency in New York. While a pre-med at UCLA, she developed lymphoma, and underwent surgery and radiation treatment.
“I endured lymphoma twice, first in my right groin and then my left groin,” Iker shared with the Palisadian-Post. “I cruised through chemo therapy then went to medical school.”
Iker got several misdiagnoses in New York while trying to find out what ailed her.
“Lymphedema was misdiagnosed at the time,” Iker explained. “I had studies done that said my arterial system was fine, so I thought, ‘Why is my leg swollen?’ Little did we know it’s because my lymphatic system had given up.”
Lymphedema is a disease that affects up to 10 million Americans and 250 million people worldwide.
Lymphedema can be hereditary or acquired as a result of cancer treatment or physical trauma. Up to 30% of women who survive breast cancer get this debilitating disease, which results in the accumulation of lymph fluid in the limbs when the lymphatic system is damaged.
Currently, there is no cure and little help apart from essential daily compression garments provided by health insurance. The effects are lifelong, drastically affect quality of life and can lead to shortened lifespan.
Iker’s lymphedema affected her ability to stand for surgery, threatening her promising surgical career. Her head surgeon suggested physical therapy.
“He said, ‘We know you have good dexterity, but how can you operate on a long case?’” Iker said.
Finishing up in New York as a chief resident, Iker returned to California.
“My lymphedema continued,” Iker said. “I explored what to do on my own without any guidance.”
After attending a lymphedema management course led by French therapist Albert LeDuc, a founder of the European Group of Lymphology, Iker realized her calling.
“It was like a shining light—somebody knew about the lymphatic system,” Iker said. “I was intrigued by his studies, so I started to focus on lymphatic disorders.”
Today, Iker focuses solely on the treatment of lymphatic diseases at the Lymphedema Center in Santa Monica.
“It’s great to sit next to LeDuc today at the World Congress of Lymphology, where we’re now announcing each others’ lectures,” Iker shared.
Lymphedema is still commonly misdiagnosed today according to Iker, though treatment options, including surgical treatment, have become more viable.
The California Lymphatic Education & Research Network Chapter is hosting a 5K Lymphwalk run/walk fundraiser for lymphedema awareness and research in Santa Monica along the Oceanfront walk June 23.
The Santa Monica walk is one of six nationwide, with other walks in Massachusetts, New York City, Denver and Washington, D.C.
LE&RN is seeking to not only raise awareness about lymphedema, but fund research to find better treatments and, one day, a cure.
“We’ve progressed a lot, but I’m still seeing patients come in all the time with a misdiagnosis,” Iker said. “Part of the reason the walk is so important is so that people are aware of what lymphedema is, its symptoms.”
Today, Iker dedicates her expertise to helping other people cope with lymphedema, organizing the yearly Lymphwalk to spread awareness about lymphatic disorders and help researchers find a cure.
“The event has become like a family,” Iker said. “It’s spreading more each year. We have more and more attendees, and they exchange information and knowledge and talk about their journey with lymphedema.”
Actor Kathy Bates, who also suffers from lymphedema, is Iker’s patient and the event’s yearly spokesperson.
“She has lymphedema in her arms because she had breast cancer,” Iker explained. “She’s doing a phenomenal job.”
Like Bates, Iker is a role model for those living with the disease.
“We’ve committed ourselves to doing this annually,” Iker said. “I’ve lived with lymphedema a long time, and I want to help other people find the answers I was looking for. I’m a happy mother of two 11-year-old miracle twins, Bianca and Marco, and when I see them I’m reminded how I’m truly lucky.”
For more information, visit lymphwalk.org.