Jillian Kemmerlin goes from patient to caregiver

Specialist helps patients navigate lymphedema treatment
March 12, 2024

For Jillian Kemmerlin, the journey to becoming a lymphedema/occupational therapist started with being a patient herself.

When she was 22, Kemmerlin was diagnosed with melanoma and had surgery to remove it. In the process, she developed lymphedema, a condition of swelling in the arms and legs that can result in loss of motion. The condition can be hereditary, but it can also be a side effect from cancer treatment. 

“It was shocking,” she said. “I had just graduated college. I was at Penn and Hopkins, slammed with this diagnosis. ‘How did I get melanoma? I’m 22 years old. I’m healthy.’ I had two major surgeries. I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. But as a result of that surgery, I have the lymphedema, which is lifelong but manageable.”

Kemmerlin, now 38, had to reteach herself how to walk and live her daily life. 

Having had a degree in exercise science, she originally wanted to be a physical therapist before getting into occupational therapy instead. The difference between the two is that physical therapy is about regaining fine motor movement, whereas occupational therapy is learning how to do everyday tasks.

“What we like to say is PT teaches you how to walk, OT teaches you how to dance,” Kemmerlin said.

After her melanoma experience, she became interested in lymphedema treatment and occupational therapy. Kemmerlin said she likes the creativity the field allows, since the goal is to retrain people to go through their daily life, whether it's relearning how to dress, or stand for long periods of time. She said the work is very rewarding because patients feel a real sense of accomplishment in relearning things they may have taken for granted. Eventually, her work brought her to Lewes. 

“I see a wide variety of patients,” Kemmerlin said. “It’s definitely a specialty. You can swell anywhere. It can be the upper extremity, lower extremity, head and neck.”

A typical day for Kemmerlin runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seeing about 12 to 14 patients per day for about 40 minutes each. Treatment includes massage to ease swelling, range-of-motion exercises and compression pumps to help with movement of fluid.

“A lot of it is about connecting with people; education and helping them help themselves; relating to them, I think, is helpful. I love what I do. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she said. 

A native of Delaware County, Pa., Kemmerlin moved to Delaware in 2013 to work at a skilled nursing facility in Millsboro – lymphedema can affect patients of all ages, but she said many of her patients are older – and felt like she found her niche in Delaware. She met and married her husband, Prince, a native of Milford, and together they have two children, Luka, 5, and Caden, 2.    

“I’m here to stay. This is my home now,” Kemmerlin said. “My husband is here; my kids are here. I’ve built a little life here in Lewes. I just love the atmosphere of it.”

She said being a cancer survivor has helped with her patients, many of whom are also survivors.

“A lot of time in here, because it’s behind closed doors, things spill out. I think a huge part of what I do is just the conversation and the healing that takes place, mentally, emotionally, physically,” Kemmerlin said.

That has led her to taking a more active role in local cancer organizations, which, much like her job, is a personal matter: Kemmerlin’s mother died of endometrial cancer in 2020. To that end, she has taken part in local breast cancer walks and fundraisers and wants to be more involved in the future. Eventually, Kemmerlin said she would like to become a breast cancer specialist to add that treatment to her repertoire and eventually get into teaching lymphedema treatment. 

“It’s been the most rewarding thing I could have done,” she said. “It’s been healing for me to help people through that journey.” 


  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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