If you’ve undergone lymph node removal surgery or other cancer treatments like radiation, it’s important to know about the risk for swelling called lymphedema. The risk of lymphedema is not always discussed prior to having cancer treatment, so it can come as a bit of a surprise. Although it can be uncomfortable, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.
“Getting lymphedema after undergoing something as challenging as cancer treatment is an added insult that can have a huge impact on quality of life,” said Michel Saint-Cyr, MD, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. “Just imagine, you’ve conquered your cancer, you may have gone through reconstruction and now you have to face lymphedema.”
Lymphedema affects around 1 in 1,000 Americans, but it is most common in women who had treatment for breast cancer. Research suggests that more than one in five women who’ve had breast cancer will develop lymphedema.
What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is swelling in the arms, legs, neck or other parts of the body caused by a build-up of lymphatic fluid.
“There are hundreds of lymph nodes in your body that help filter substances that travel through the lymphatic fluid. Lymph nodes contain white blood cells that help the body fight infection and disease,” Dr. Saint-Cyr said. “When certain lymph nodes are removed or damaged, lymphatic fluid can’t flow through the body normally and can become trapped in areas like arms and legs.”
When this happens, you may notice swelling and your skin may feel tight, heavy and tingly. You may even notice your skin looks thicker or leathery and clothes feel more restrictive than usual. Lymphedema can be very painful and cause skin and mobility problems. It also can put you at greater risk for infection in the affected areas.
“The lymphatic fluid filters out waste products from your body,” Dr. Saint-Cyr said. “When its flow is restricted by lymphedema, it can’t filter out bacteria as fast and you can get sicker more quickly.”
How can I reduce my risk for developing lymphedema?
Before you have surgery or radiation treatment for cancer, talk to your health care team to find out if you are at risk for lymphedema.
“A good cancer treatment program ideally has a lymphedema prevention service built into it with therapists who work with oncologists and surgeons to help educate and monitor patients,” Dr. Saint-Cyr said. “It’s important to have awareness and a protocol in place so you can prevent the onset of lymphedema. Sometimes swelling won’t show up right away — it can sometimes take weeks and months to develop.”
Here are a few tips to help reduce your risk for lymphedema. These tips may also prevent it from getting worse:
1. Protect your skin
One way to reduce your risk for lymphedema is to protect your skin. Avoid cuts, nicks, bites and other injuries to the affected area.
Use sun protection to avoid sunburns, wear insect repellant and immediately disinfect and treat any cuts. Avoid blood draws and new tattoos in the affected area.
2. Moisturize your skin
Keep your skin clean and moisturized to prevent chapping and chafing.
3. Avoid tight clothing
Don’t wear anything that constricts your arms, wrists, forearms and legs as this can block lymphatic drainage. Wear loose clothing that doesn’t leave marks on your body.
You can wear a compression sleeve or stocking but talk to your health care team to make sure it fits correctly. The wrong fit can make lymphedema worse.
4. Maintain a healthy weight
Maintain a healthy body weight by eating a healthy diet and staying physically active. Ask your health care team which exercises are right for you as some exercises may make lymphedema worse.
5. Try manual lymphatic massage
Lymphatic massage can help reduce swelling and improve circulation throughout the entire lymphatic system. It helps push lymph fluid out of the swollen part of your body.
This massage can be done by a lymphatic massage therapist, or in some cases, you can do it yourself at home. Consult with your health care provider to determine which option is best for you.
If you experience signs of lymphedema, such as fever, redness, tenderness, or warmth of the arm or leg, let your health care team know right away. For additional questions about lymphedema, visit bannerhealth.com.