Woman hopes experimental surgery helps

Published 11:14 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Barbara Comley is hoping for a miracle.

Eighteen years ago, she survived breast cancer. But as part of the treatment, doctors took pin head-sized lymph nodes out from her armpit to have them biopsied.

She survived the cancer but the removal of the lymph nodes gave her a condition called lymphedema. It was 12 years ago that Comley found out she had the disease, which is nearly unrecognized by doctors in America.

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“They biopsied the lymph nodes to see how far the cancer had spread,” Comley said. She suffers from chronic infections from the disease. “I’m at the very last stage of lymphedema and it is to the point where the infection gets in your blood and they can’t get it out.”

The lymph nodes are part of the body’s lymphatic system, which collects and filters the interstitial fluid of the body. The symptoms of the disease includes severe fatigue, a heavy swollen limbs or localized fluid accumulation in other body areas, including the head or neck, discoloration of the skin overlying the lymphedema People can be born with the disease as well.

In May of this year, Comley was told she had 12 to 18 months to live.

Now her hope lies with a doctor from Paris who does an experimental surgery.

Comley has been hospitalized 37 times in the past 12 years from infections related to her disease.

“This is just a miracle,” Comley said of the procedure.

On Nov. 12, Comley is going to Roper Hospital in South Carolina. The doctor, Corinne Becker, is being flown from England to America to not only operate on Comley but to show other doctors how to perform the surgery to help others.

“They take fat and lymph nodes from another part of my body, probably the groin area and they will microscopically re-attach them in my armpit,” Comley said. “Hopefully, the fluid will start to be filtered again.”

The experimental surgery has been done a number of times in Europe and other places but it was only recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“Dr. Becker takes three weeks out of the year and travels to other countries to do this operation,” Comley said. “She just got back from Brazil with the two doctors who will perform my surgery. She has been training them how to do the surgery.”

Comley’s hope is that this procedure not only helps her out but helps doctors learn how to treat the disease before it gets to advanced stages in other people.