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Lymphedema: It’s a disease that affects millions, possibly someone you know

It's a disease you've likely never heard of. But odds are, someone you know is suffering from it. And because this disease is so widely misunderstood, they may not even know it.

"You know, I used to box when I was younger and so I thought -- this would be like riding a bike," said Chris Gauntt.

Gauntt is putting up the fight of his life -- for his life.

"My leg just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Gauntt said.

At its worst, there were ten gallons of fluid in just his left leg.

"I remember one Friday, getting off work and I went, got in my Jeep -- and they were so huge, I couldn't close the door," Gauntt said.

Doctors literally were taken aback after meeting with nearly five dozen therapists. Gauntt still had no answers -- no explanation. With no help and his leg only growing, Gauntt could no longer walk.

"We got a medical bed in my living room and just looking out the sliding glass door and it`s a beautiful sunny day and you can`t go out there," Gauntt said.

For five years, Gauntt went untreated -- hiding behind closed doors and behind his vanity.

It was a year ago when Gauntt stumbled upon Senior Occupational Therapist Vikki Ralph. Within seconds, there was a diagnosis -- the first real explanation for why Gauntt was in pain.

"When you are obese, you have a lot of weight. You have a stomach that's just bearing down on these lymph nodes. It creates kind of a, if you will, a dam that just blocks that fluid from coming on up," Ralph said.

As a result, both Gauntt's left leg and left abdomen collected fluid.

So why does this happen? Our cells get oxygen, nutrients and water every single day to keep our bodies ticking. Our body tissue can only handle so much fluid -- and that's where the lymphatic system comes into play.

You can think of it as our body's drainage system. Those drains take excess fluid and transport it right back into the blood stream. When the lymphatic system breaks down, the fluids build up in our body's tissues -- causing pain and swelling. The condition is known as lymphedema.

Now that Gauntt had a diagnosis, his next fight was treating it. Once a week he got deep tissue massage. Therapists would work to push the fluid back toward the lymph ducts. Lymphedema patients also undergo multi-layer compression wraps.

In just four-and-a-half months, Gauntt lost 150 pounds. Two months after that, he was walking again.

Lymphedema is a disease that affects more than 10 million Americans. That's more than MS, Muscular Dystrophy and Parkinson's and AIDS combined. In fact, doctors spend less than 30 minutes of a four-year medical education devoted to lymphedema education.

A spokesperson for the Lymphatic Education and Research Network is someone you will recognize.

Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 -- and underwent a double mastectomy. After doctors removed 20 lymph nodes, she immediately noticed her right arm swelling -- a result of lymphedema.

Bates came to Chicago to sit face-to-face with the director of the American Medical Association and plead that doctors might be able to spend more time on lymphedema education.

"I'm going to resist the urge to tell him that I would like him to imagine having a cement block tied to his leg and living with that for a day, just 24 hours, because I think if they did, then they would understand," Bates said.

Bates said she is fighting for herself and for millions of others.

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