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Living with lymphedema

When starting treatment for breast cancer, it is completely normal to feel nervous about potential side effects that may occur as a result of treatments such as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.

Lymphedema is an example of one side effect that can be a result of breast cancer treatment, as well as other types of cancer.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when the lymph system is blocked or damaged to a point where the lymphatic system is unable to allow fluids to drain adequately. The damage then leads to excess fluid (lymph) retained by the lymph nodes, which causes swelling (edema).

There are two types of lymphedema:

  • Primary lymphedema is a hereditary condition that can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired.
  • Secondary (acquired) lymphedema forms as a result of any change that blocks or interrupts the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system. This can develop from an infection, trauma or scar tissue, or it can also be a result of cancer treatment, such as surgery and radiation.
    • Surgery – If your lymph nodes and lymph vessels need to be removed or cut during surgery, then lymphedema can develop. During breast cancer surgery, sometimes the surgeon will remove one or more lymph nodes nearby to see if the cancer has spread.
    • Radiation – Radiation therapy can cause inflammation or scarring of your lymph nodes or lymph vessels, which can restrict the flow of lymph fluid and lead to lymphedema.

Lymphedema varies from person to person, and the swelling can range from very mild to severe. It can develop just a few days after surgery or radiation therapy, or it could develop slowly over time.

Where does lymphedema occur?

Lymphedema can occur in any part of the body, but it usually affects the arms or legs. For example, if lymphedema develops after breast cancer treatment, it can affect the area around the breast and underarm, as well as the arm closest to where treatment occurred.

While lymphedema is most often associated with breast cancer, it can result from treatment for other cancers, such as prostate cancer, gynecological cancers, lymphoma and melanoma. The greater the number of lymph nodes removed, the higher the risk for developing lymphedema.

The main sign of lymphedema is swelling in the arms, hands, fingers, shoulders, chest or legs. Additional symptoms include the following in the affected arm or leg: a feeling of heaviness, tightness, restricted motion, aches or discomfort.

Treatments for lymphedema

Since the severity and cause of lymphedema is different for each person, the treatment for the condition will also vary. Treatment options may include skin care, manual lymph drainage, gentle massage and light exercises to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Wearing compression bandages, pumps or garments (e.g., sleeves, stockings) can help prevent additional fluid from accumulating in the tissue. Also, medications can assist with reducing inflammation, preventing blood clots and limiting infections.

Proactive lymphedema prevention

Spotting the signs of lymphedema early can help in terms of managing symptoms and preventing the condition from becoming more serious. Not only can lymphedema be uncomfortable when it goes untreated, but it can also lead to decreased function and mobility in the affected limb, skin breakdown and other complications.

The great news is that with proper care, lymphedema may be prevented or controlled. Take note of the symptoms listed above, and if you believe that lymphedema may be affecting you, speak with your doctor about treatment options. Then, you can work together to develop a plan to take control of lymphedema early, and insure that you can continue to participate in the activities that you enjoy.

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