What about those high heels (and shoes in general)?

“You cannot wear high heels any longer!” That was pretty much the message I got 5 years ago, at the age of 22, when I was diagnosed with lymphedema.

On top on everything with getting the message of having to wear stockings the rest of my life and all the other restrictions as a result of lymphedema, I started crying. Tears ran down my cheeks and I could not quite comprehend all the things I was told from the health personel. And the thing about the high heels was to me a very hard blow in all of this. That might be quite difficult to understand for many people – which I completely get. I can only explain it as I at that time tried hard finding my way back to who I was after having had cancer and been going through the hardcore chemo and radiation treatment. I had always known that I wanted a family with several kids, but now I could not bear these kids any longer and the fact that I had had cancer and side effects of the following treatment might make it impossible to adopt. I had always been sure that I was going to be a lawyer and that I was going to go through law school with straight A’s since I’ve always been good in school, but after being sick I could barely focus on reading a single page in a legal book. And the worst thing was that even though you are cancer free, you will never be rid of cancer; cause the side effects and the following health problems will stay with you the rest of your life. So all in all, it was hard finding myself again – and learning to know the new me. But the one thing I always had, no matter how sick I was, was my ability to walk into a room with confidence because I felt good in the clothes and shoes I was wearing. It is a way of expressing who you are. In my case not with expensive clothes bought in Burberry or Malene Birger, but with colorful stilettos and a beautiful business dress (which was probably from H&M). Because that is me; all classic, but with an awesome colorful twist. 

Heels have always been my thing. It was a natural – and huge – part of my wardrobe. And now I was suddenly told that I could not longer “keep this part of me”. After all the other things I had to let go of, I felt awful that I could not even hold on to this one thing that simply made me feel like me. And for me, high heels are the epitome of femininity and with the main parts of my body that represented the female body removed, I desperately wanted to hold on this outer symbol of being a woman. 

But as with anything else, I am not good at just accepting the first thing I am told. So I gradually tried out wearing different shoes and stilettos to see if it would be possible to still wear some of them. And it turned out to be possible in some extent, as long as I focus working with and listen to my lymphie legs. Of course, I should not walk around with a pair of 12 cm high stilettos for 4 hours straight, but I can actually wear the shoes I want in everyday life if I am aware of the state of my legs and adapt to it.

Down below I have written about my own experience in relation to stilettos and shoes in general when having lymphedema. But it should be said that every lymphedema patient is different. You might not be able to do the same things as me or you might be able to do much more, but the most important thing is to be aware of what you own lymphedema legs are telling you – and especially when they are drawing the line.

Either way, I hope that this article can be used as an inspiration to not just give in when you are told that you can no longer do someting. In my opinion, you need to stay true to who you are in the extent it is possible, cause this will benefit not only your mental state of mind but also your general health.

no go’s

When I first got lymphedema I thought that the best thing would be to always wear flat shoes – and that it did not matter what kind of flat shoes. But that turned out not to be the case. One thing I learned pretty quick was that I am not capable of wearing ballerinas (which is not fun to find out when you have invested in like 10 pairs of those). The ballerinas somehow fit my feet in a way that will make my feet swell up – a lot – and the strange thing is that I do not normally suffer from much from swelling in my feet, neither before or after lymphedema. A few times I experienced the feet actually swelling so much in the ballerinas that the swelled feet grew far out over the shoes. I therefore stay far away from ballerinas.

No matter how beautiful the stilettos in the store is, they are not worth it if your lymphie legs reacts negatively on them. I can quite easily say if a pair of stilettos will work for my legs or not; I can feel it in my ankle and lower leg area. If the stilettos cause some kind of discomfort in those areas when I try on the shoes, the shoes are not for me. No matter how hard it is to accept. The shoes, no matter what kind, cannot be uncomfortable for your legs because then you risk worsening your lymphedema and possibly creating irreparable damage. The shoes must be comfortable for your feet and legs to wear (relatively speaking, since no stilettos will never be as comfortable as a pair of Nike Free-sneaks). And the shoes must fit your feet well – and no, you will not be able to wear them in.

One thing in particular bothered me for several years. When I was going out with my girlfriends and everybody else was all dressed up in high heels and short dresses, I stood there with my stupid lymphie legs and wanted to look amazing like the other girls. But that is just a no go. I cannot go out all night dancing in a pair of 12 cm stilettos; it will simply damage my lymphedema in a way that does not even come close to being worth the gazing eyes out on the town. It is not worth ruining your legs, if you ask me. So if I go out dancing, I accept that I cannot wear high heels like my girlfriends – but then I am also the only girl who wakes up the next day without sore feet which is pretty nice.

I have had some good months where my legs have been doing great. That gives me the opportunity to wear more of the footwear I love on a daily basis. However, it is not always like that. Sometimes you have days, weeks or months where your lymphie legs aren’t doing that great and you have to accept that. At times like that I do not wear “challenging” footwear; I stay in my Nike’s and other flat shoes and focus on getting my legs better. I know that I at some point I will be able to wear the more amazing stilettos again.

Everyday shoes (when not at work)

When I am not at work, it actually is a simple shoe decision: I always wear sneaks. This is the case when I bike to work, when I go down to buy grosseries, when I go for a walk or I am going to see one of my friends.

It might be obvious that a pair of lymphedema legs will be doing much better in a pair of Nike Free’s than in a pair of stilettos. In my case, my legs never react negatively on wearing sneaks and I have gotten used to wearing them whenever I am not a work or at a party (unless I am on my way to the party, then I wear the sneaks as well).

I often bring a pair of changing shoes with me in my bag. Then I can jump into the stilettos when I arrive at work or I can switch over the sneaks when I am out somewhere if my legs suddenly start acting up.

In my world sneaks are the starting and ending point – and other shoes are the “treats” I wear in the short middle act.

When at work

I work in a place where you do not show up in a pair of dirty sneaks. And I like that. It suits me well that I in every day life can wear my classic business dresses or a pair of black pants combined with a flashy silk shirt – and a pair of nice shoes.

I do not walk around much at work. I mostly sit in my office chair with my legs up on a stool. That also gives me the opportunity to actually wear high heels at work since I do not walk much around anyways. But that does not mean that I wear everything from the shoe closet at work. It is important to me to wear shoes that will not be problematic to my lymphedema if I for once suddenly do have several meetings around the house I have to walk around to.

I prioritize that the shoes must fit my feet well. For example, I do not wear stilettos that are very tight around one or several parts of my foot. The shoes must be (relatively) comfortable. To me it is better if the shoes are somehow closed around my ankle or foot so I my legs or feet do not have to put an effort into keeping the shoes on properly. I prefer stilettos with a 6 cm heel since that does not in any way seem problematic in relation to my lymphedema.

When my legs are doing amazingly, I go all in, also at work. That means actually wearing 12 cm stilettos, as long as they fit my feet well. I would never wear shoes like that several days in a row, but I will wear them a few times a week if it does not seem to be harming my lymphedema.

With all that being said, there are times where my legs are not doing well. At those times I have no choice: I wear a pair of nicer sneaks, because I simply do not have a choice.  I am not going to risk worsening my lymphedema because of an office dress code. That is just the way it is.

Being all dressed up

Sometimes you do get those special invitations. Weddings, birthday parties, christenings and so on. You will dress up for the occasion and of course you will want to wear a pair of amazing shoes as well.

It might sound strange, but I actually wear more “challenging” shoes at work than I do at parties. Cause at work I know I will be sitting most of the time. That is never the case at parties. You will often be standing at a wedding reception and you will probably be dancing later in the evening. So it does not – as a main rule – work for me to wear 12 cm stilettos at occations like that.

Depending on what kind of party I am going to, I wear either lower high heels or sometimes flat. I especially like wearing medium high heels that are somehow closed around my feet or ankles, so I do not have to use any strength on keeping the stilettoes on. I sometimes change into a pair of high stilettos when I arrive at the party, but I only wear them throughout dinner – where you are sitting down – and then I change.

When I go to parties, I always do one out of two things:

  • I bring a pair of simple black flat shoes that I can change into.
  • I jump out of my high heels and just walk around in my stockings (most people get a bit tipsy at weddings and such, so they do not even notice you not wearing shoes any longer).

Either way, it is important to me that I can enjoy the party and do not have to worry about my lymphedema. That is why I prioritize being able to dance all night long in a pair of flat shoes instead of constantly worrying about the pain in my legs – and the follow-up swelling the next week – because I really wanted to wear those new 12 cm high stilettos.

To sum up

It is important for me to once again stress the point that every lymphedema patient is different. So that I am capable of walking around with stilettos to some extent does not necessarily mean that other lymphedema patients can. If you wish to try out wearing stilettos start SLOW – and listen to your legs. If wearing a specific pair of shoes seems to be worsening the lymphedema, you need to take them off immediately. Instead try a new brand of shoes, a new type of stiletto or another height.

All in all, the whole article can be summed up to these few points:

  • Ballerinas are – at least in my case – not good for your lymphedema legs/feet.
  • When walking around in everyday life, think practical; wear sneaks.
  • If you wish to wear stilettos, wear stilettos that 1) are comfortable (in the stilettos standard, so to speak) and 2) fit your feet properly.
  • It works well for me with shoes, stilettos and boots that are somehow “closed” around the foot, so I do not use any leg/foot strength on keeping them on.
  • Always take care of your lymphedema. That means listening to it on a daily basis; is the lymphedema doing well enough for you to be wearing a bit of heel today or should you stay in flats. Only you will know your lymphedema well enough for answering that question.