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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Lymphedema management

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which excess lymphatic fluid collects in the interstitial tissue and causes swelling in specific areas of the body, usually in the arms or legs. Swelling may also occur in other parts of the body, such as the breast or chest wall.

What causes lymphedema?

Lymphedema may develop as a result of cancer, cancer treatment (e.g., surgery, radiation), infection, trauma, scar tissue or anything that changes, blocks or interrupts the flow of lymph fluid through the lymphatic system. While it is most often associated with breast cancer, lymphedema may 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. Early diagnosis and treatment for lymphedema is important in helping managing symptoms and preventing the condition from progressing. Untreated lymphedema may lead to decreased function and mobility in the affected limb, skin breakdown, infection and other complications.

Lymphedema prevention and treatment

With proper care and treatment, lymphedema may be prevented or controlled. Lymphedema treatments vary from person to person, depending on the severity and cause.

Our oncology rehabilitation team provides treatments designed to either prevent or reduce the swelling associated with lymphedema. Treatment may include skin care, manual lymph drainage, gentle massage and light exercises to help stimulate the lymphatic system. We may combine surveillance with bioimpedance, gentle range-of-motion exercises and other techniques.

We may also recommend compression bandages, pumps, or garments (e.g., sleeves, stockings) to help prevent additional fluid from accumulating in the tissue. In addition, medications may help reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots and treat infections.

After non-surgical therapeutic approaches have been exhausted, we may also recommend surgical options for the treatment of lymphedema.

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