As if dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis isn’t complicated enough, there are potential side effects like lymphedema that can occur during treatment and even years after treatment is completed. Lymphedema, when it occurs, is a build-up of lymph fluid usually in the arm, hand, breast or torso after lymph node removal or radiation therapy to a lymph node region. In most cases it develops slowly over time. Some breast cancer patients are never bothered by it. There’s no way to predict who will develop lymphedema.
Here are some things you might need to know about controlling lymphedema.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system. This results in an abnormal collection of high-protein fluids which build up just below the surface of the skin. Symptoms can range from fatigue in the affected area and slight swelling or puffiness to extreme swelling, blisters and thickening of tissue. This can be painful and the weight of the affected limb can be unbearable for some patients.
Anyone who’s had cancer has a lifelong chance of developing lymphedema. Some patients experience swelling immediately after surgery, while others might not have it until a year later or even 10 years down the road.
Lymphedema can’t be cured, but it can be treated. Let’s talk about some things that can help keep swelling down and limbs mobile.
Physical Therapy and Compression
If you’re showing signs of lymphedema, your doctor will likely recommend physical therapy and compression as a method of controlling the advancement of the lymphedema. This will probably entail specific exercises designed to help keep lymphatic fluid moving. Your doctor will likely also recommend you wear compression garments on the affected areas. Compression treatment applies light, even pressure on the tissues, which helps fluid move through and drain out of the area.
There are certain massage techniques available, called manual lymph drainage, which can help reduce swelling and assist with moving lymph fluid out of your arm, chest or breast. Make sure that someone specially trained in this type of massage performs the procedure. Because this type of treatment is not safe for every patient, it is important that your doctor has recommended this therapy first. Patients who have a skin infection, blood clots, congestive heart failure, have recently received radiation therapy or have active cancer aren’t well-suited for massage therapy.
One of the best things you can do to prevent the pain and discomfort caused by lymphedema is to strive to prevent flare-ups. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Keep your skin hydrated.
- Protect your skin from cuts.
- Keep your skin clean, but only use mild soaps and deodorants.
- If you receive a cut, clean it, put antibiotic ointment on it and bandage it as soon as possible.
- Don’t allow injections into or blood to be drawn from your at-risk limb.
- Use caution when doing repetitive motions – such as painting or scrubbing – and allow yourself to rest frequently.
- Avoid hot showers, baths or hot tubs.
- Avoid carrying heavy objects.
- Do not wear tight-fitting jewelry on your affected hand or arm.
- Don’t wear clothing that restricts movement or is tight.
- Avoid exercises that put a large amount of pressure on the arm.
If you feel you may be experiencing lymphedema, contact your doctor immediately. They can likely put you on a path that will reduce the severity of the lymphedema and help you get your life back to being as normal as possible.
Dr. Shamail Butt is a board-certified, fellowship-trained Hematology/Oncology specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. He’s accepting new patients at the Main Campus and at Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. Dr. Butt is a member of the American Society of Hematology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.