A mum-of-two has opened up about a chronic condition that makes her body uncontrollably swell up – even when she loses weight.
Zoe Pearce's legs have ballooned in recent years – despite countless diets and exercise regimes.
The 29-year-old, from Billingham, County Durham, even lost three stones in weight, but they kept getting bigger.
But it wasn't until 2015 that she was diagnosed with lipoedema, an illness that leads to an abnormal build-up of fat cells in parts of the body, including the legs and sometimes arms – and can cause extreme pain and discomfort.
"It can’t be changed with diet or exercise, it can only be removed from your body through a special kind of liposuction," she told TeessideLive.
She went on: "It can feel heavy, tingly, fizzy, not very nice, it can be painful as well. There are things you can do to help manage the condition."
Zoe tries to keep active and swimming helps, as well as dry brushing, breathing exercises, and managing food and drink that can cause inflammation, TeessideLive reports.
Pasta causes her legs to get painful, and she no longer drinks alcohol because it causes her legs to fizz and ache afterward.
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Zoe has also cut out caffeine and tries to avoid sugar and processed foods.
"You still have to live your life, but there are some foods I know will affect me," she said.
"Your period can affect it, your hormones, if you’re ovulating, some women don’t get diagnosed until their menopause."
She was diagnosed by Teesside Hospice in 2015 after a referral from her GP.
"I go in and out of diets constantly and I’d lost three stone but I noticed my legs had got bigger," she added.
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She said: "I went to my doctor and she thought I might have lymphedema so she referred me to the hospice."
A specialist at the hospice was able to diagnose her condition.
Two years ago, Zoe was told she has Stage 3 Type 4, but the condition, which affects about 11% of women, has spread to other areas of her body since her last review.
After finding a lump under her armpit and a scan at the breast clinic, she found out the lipoedema has spread to her breasts, as well as already having it in her legs, arms, and buttocks.
However, it’s not the same in every person, and it can affect anyone.
"It’s different for everyone, I think I’ve got quite an aggressive type because of how big my legs have got in quite a small space of time," she said.
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Some may only experience it in certain places, but signs to look out for include fat pads, knee overhang, and saddlebags on thighs.
"If you get an early diagnosis you can do a lot to manage the condition so you don’t end up with legs like me," Zoe said.
For the past six years, she has managed the condition the best she can and has used her social media platforms to promote lipoedema awareness, body positivity, eating disorder recovery, and plus-size fashion.
Her Instagram account @thickthighs.positivevibes has almost 28,000 followers.
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Now, to mark Lipoedema Awareness Month in June, Zoe will be sharing information about the chronic illness and giving personal insight.
"I just try to get on with it," she said.
"It affects you when you’re clothes shopping, I can’t get wellies to fit me. It used to affect me quite a lot around other people, I’d think they were looking at me and judging me."
Although she has felt people looking at her over the years, not many have mentioned her legs to her.
When she had her two sons at the University Hospital of North Tees in Stockton-on-Tees, the midwives were aware of her condition and she felt no judgement.
"I’ve been fortunate not to have comments," Zoe added.
"Sometimes you do think that medical professionals think you’re just making excuses, but the more people know about lipoedema hopefully the more that’s going to change."
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