What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition in which lymph fluid builds up in parts of the body (usually in an arm or leg), causing inflammation and swelling. Lymph fluid is the clear fluid that circulates throughout the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes act as a type of filter, trapping cells that may be harmful to the body such as bacteria and viruses.
Lymphedema can develop when lymph nodes are removed during surgery for cancer or they are damaged during radiation therapy. This may disrupt the drainage of lymph through the lymphatic system, causing a buildup of fluid to occur.
Some women who have been treated for breast cancer may be at risk for developing lymphedema in their arm, chest or torso. Lymphedema can be temporary, but it is usually a long-term condition. Although it can be uncomfortable, lymphedema is not a life-threatening condition.
Who develops lymphedema?
The exact cause of lymphedema is still unknown and it cannot be predicted who will develop lymphedema. However, your risk of developing lymphedema increases if you have had lymph nodes removed during surgery or radiation therapy to the lymph nodes in the underarm area. It usually develops within 2 – 3 years after these treatments, but it can develop within months or many years later. Unfortunately, the risk for developing lymphedema is life-long.
Can I prevent lymphedema?
There are precautions you can take to lower your risk of developing lymphedema:
• Try to avoid any injury, infection or trauma to the arm on the side where lymph nodes were removed and/or radiated
• Protect your arm and hand from cuts, scratches, burns, and insect bites. If these occur, cleanse the area and treat it with an antibiotic ointment
• If you need to get blood drawn or your blood pressure taken, request that your unaffected arm be used
• Moisturize your skin daily to prevent chapping or chafing
• Be careful when cutting your nails and avoid cutting your cuticles
• Wear gloves while doing activities that may cause skin injury, such as gardening or dishwashing
• Exercise regularly and do your best to keep a healthy weight
What are the signs and symptoms of lymphedema?
Lymphedema usually develops gradually over time. The signs and symptoms may include:
• Swelling of your hand, arm, chest or upper torso
• Aching or a feeling of heaviness or tightness in your arm or chest
• Less mobility in your chest, shoulder, wrist or hand
• Hardening and thickening of the skin on your arm. If you press on your skin, the indentation does not immediately disappear
• Clothing, rings, watches, or jewellery feels too tight
• Skin becomes prone to infections from minor cuts or burns
How is lymphedema treated?
Although there is no cure, treatments are available to control lymphedema by reducing the pain and swelling. The most common treatment for lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy. It includes:
• Bandaging of the affected area
• Compression therapy with a compression sleeve, compression bra, or pump
• Manual Lymphatic Drainage: light massage and manipulation of the skin to cause the lymph to move
Exercise is also often recommended as part of the treatment plan for lymphedema.
Links to more information
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CancerQuest (Emory University)
Lymphedema: Take Control
Breast Cancer Action Ottawa
Guide to Understanding Lymphedema
Living Beyond Breast Cancer
Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know
American Cancer Society
Day to Day Coping with Lymphedema (video)
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center