The lymph node removal and radiation that commonly accompany breast cancer treatment can increase the risk of developing Lymphedema. The Mayo Clinic defines Lymphedema as "tissue swelling caused by an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that's usually drained through the body's lymphatic system." The 600 to 1000 lymph nodes throughout the body are an important part of the lymphatic system. During breast cancer treatment, one or more lymph nodes are commonly removed from the armpit area to test for the spread of cancer and to remove any nodes presenting with cancer. Radiation treatment can further damage the existing nodes in the area.
The Mayo Clinic recommends contacting your doctor "if you notice persistent swelling in your arm." The symptoms can range from mild to severe and include swelling, a feeling of heaviness or tightness, restricted range of motion, recurring skin infections, and a hardening or thickening of the skin. One of the other effects of developing lymphedema is the psychological impact, becoming self-conscious about the asymmetrical appearance of the body.
Treatment may include compression bandages, manual lymphatic drainage, pneumatic pumping, careful skin care and, rarely, surgery. Early treatment of mild swelling may resolve the condition. The more advanced stages of lymphedema present a life-long condition that needs to be managed with treatment by a Certified Lymphedema Therapist. These are usually physical therapists or nurses with extensive training to treat the condition. While LymphWorks for Wellness does not have Certified Lymphedema Therapists on staff, I will gladly help connect you with facilities that do. I do work with at-risk clients to help them lower their risk of developing lymphedema.
One perplexing aspect of lymphedema is that it often develops 1-5 years after cancer treatment, and sometimes even decades later. That makes prevention an important element of a healthy lifestyle after breast cancer treatment.
The peer-reviewed publication titled, "Preventative measures for lymphedema: Separating fact from fiction" gives the following preventative recommendations for lymphedema. [See the Sources page to read the full article]
* Try to keep your weight within the normal range for your height if at all possible * Do use cream or lotion to keep the skin moist * Treat small cuts or breaks in skin with an antibacterial ointment * Avoid needle sticks of any type in the affected limb, including vaccinations, blood draws, intravenous lines and acupuncture * Do not use a blood pressure cuff on the affected arm * Use a thimble for sewing * Avoid testing bath or cooking water using the at-risk or affected limb * Wear gloves when gardening and cooking * Wear sunscreen and protect the arm from insect bites * Preferably use an electric razor or hair-removing cream to remove unwanted body hair in the affected armpit. * Avoid Blocking the flow of fluids through the area - wear only loose jewelry and clothes without tight bands of elastic * Do not carry a heavy purse, bag or suitcase with the affected arm * Try to avoid extremes of heat or cold, such as saunas, heating pads or ice packs