HOUSTON (October 31, 2021)

In 2014, Dawn McDonald noticed a small lump on her skin, just below her collarbone. She’d always been one to stay on top of her health and maintain all recommended screenings, so anything out of the ordinary alarmed her. After undergoing two biopsies her worst fears were confirmed – she had breast cancer.

“I remember that I was getting ready to go into a meeting with a big group of staff members and my OB-GYN called me and said, ‘Dawn, you have cancer, and we need to schedule surgery immediately,’” McDonald said.

McDonald’s cancer was caught early. Nevertheless, it had already started to spread, and after discussing her options with the surgeon, McDonald decided on a bilateral mastectomy
“Every year your chance of the cancer recurring goes up, and I didn’t want to have that weighing on me my whole life,” she said.

McDonald’s surgery in early 2015. After, she had to follow a very specific recovery regimen to help her body heal. Everything was going smoothly, but after some time, she still couldn’t use her shoulder properly and the swelling in her arm was not improving. She reached out to a physical therapist friend who told her she should look into a breast cancer rehabilitation program.

“I remember my friend saying, ‘I think you have lymphedema,’ and I kind of brushed it off and explained that it was just surgical swelling,” McDonald said. “But then she gave me an article to read and I realized there were so many things I should have been doing, and that I probably did need some kind of therapy.”

Lymphedema is characterized by swelling and is caused by a build-up of lymph fluid inside the body. This happens when lymph nodes fail to function properly, often due to a blockage within the lymph system, which is responsible for the flow of fluid and cells that help fight infection. Lymphedema typically affects the arms or legs, and is it usually caused by cancer or cancer treatment, including surgeries like McDonald’s. After her doctors confirmed that she did, in fact, have lymphedema, McDonald was referred to TIRR Memorial Hermann for rehabilitation.

“I attended therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann – The Woodlands during the summer when school was out of session, and from my initial evaluation I was so impressed with everyone there,” McDonald said. “During one of my therapy sessions, I said, ‘So, what exactly does it take to do this job?’”

McDonald learned that because she was already a licensed occupational therapist, she would just need to complete a few weeks of training and pass the required coursework to specialize specifically in lymphedema rehabilitation. Coincidentally, TIRR Memorial Hermann – The Woodlands was looking for an occupational therapist to help lymphedema patients at the time.

“I got the job almost by accident,” McDonald said. “When I told my employer, they were so supportive. They said it was a great career move and they were happy for me.”

McDonald says she is so glad she can help guide other women through the same situation she found herself in.

“We have a high number of lymphedema patients, but there are not that many of us who are actually certified lymphedema therapists,” McDonald said. “Every time I meet new patients, they often tell me they didn’t know this kind of help was out there. I really want to spread the word that there are therapy options right here in Houston for anyone who has lymphedema.”

At TIRR Memorial Hermann – The Woodlands, McDonald helps patients learn how to manage their lymphedema through bandaging, compressions, exercises and manual lymph drainage massages. She teaches them techniques they can use at home so they do not have to rely on her. She says being able to help patients who felt as helpless as she did gives her life a whole new purpose.

“This whole experience has been life-changing for me, and I want to help others learn what I know now, because I feel empowered,” McDonald said. “After everything I have been through I can still do anything, including this job. Even more, I can do this job really well because I know exactly what my patients are going through.”

McDonald added that she encourages everyone to stay on top of their health—whether they notice something out of the ordinary or experience unanticipated side effects after a surgery.“Don’t dismiss your health, and seek out the advice of a medical professional you trust,” McDonald said. “The reason I’m here today is because I went straight to the doctor as soon as I saw that little bump under my skin. We caught it early and now I’m able to help others like me.”