Breast Cancer Lymphedema Management
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Video: Managing LymphedemaManaging Lymphedema
Listen to Karen Gilbert, National Director of Oncology Rehabilitation, describe what lymphedema is and how CTCA rehabilitation therapists can help you manage this potential side effect of breast cancer treatment.
Sometimes, breast cancer patients develop a condition called lymphedema after receiving breast cancer surgery or treatment. CTCA offers a Lymphedema Management Program to help prevent lymphedema and, if it occurs, to proactively manage the condition.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition in which excess lymphatic fluid is retained by the lymph nodes and causes swelling in specific areas of the body, usually in the arms or legs.
The lymphatic system plays an integral role in the body’s immune system. This network of vessels and nodes transports and filters lymph fluid containing lymphocytes (white blood cells responsible for fighting infection and disease) from tissues and organs. The lymphatic system also removes harmful substances, such as bacteria, from lymph fluid before returning it to the bloodstream.
What Causes Lymphedema After Breast Cancer Surgery?
The swelling occurs when a blockage in the lymphatic system prevents the fluid from draining adequately. For example, in breast cancer surgery, the removal of lymph nodes from the underarm changes the way the lymph fluid flows within that side of the upper body, making it more difficult for fluid in the arm to circulate to other parts of the body.
While lymphedema can develop in any part of the body, it most often affects the arms or legs. For instance, if lymphedema develops after breast cancer surgery, it can affect the area around the breast and underarm, as well as the arm closest to the surgical site.
Building Your Individualized Plan
Your CTCA breast cancer team will employ techniques to help reduce your risk of developing lymphedema. For example, your surgeon may perform a sentinel lymph node biopsy prior to surgery. This procedure allows your surgeon to determine which lymph nodes need to be removed, while helping to preserve remaining lymph nodes in the axilla.
After breast cancer surgery, your oncology rehabilitation therapist can help you build an individualized lymphedema management plan. This plan combines gentle range-of-motion exercises, massage and education on techniques you can use in your day-to-day life to stimulate your lymphatic system and help prevent lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.
Lymphedema Management for Breast Cancer
Specifically, your oncology rehabilitation therapist may employ one of the following techniques to either prevent lymphedema, or reduce the swelling associated with the condition:
- Lymph drainage therapy: Lymph drainage therapy is a specialized massage technique designed to activate the pumping action of your lymphatic system. This pumping action reduces and, in some cases, prevents fluid buildup.
- Le duc manual lymph drainage: Le duc manual lymph drainage employs a combination of manual lymph drainage with multi-layer bandaging and a compression pump, to clear excess lymphatic fluids from your body by activating the pumping action of the lymphatic system.
Other lymphedema treatments may include skin care, gentle massage and light exercises to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Your CTCA care team may also recommend compression bandages, pumps or garments (e.g., sleeves, stockings) to help prevent additional fluid from accumulating in the tissue.
In addition, your care team offers various other supportive therapies to help you feel better as you heal. For example, your pain management practitioner will provide pain control, including suggestions for medications to help reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots and treat infections. Your mind-body therapist can help you cope with the emotional impact of lymphedema by providing counseling and support groups.
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