Recover Overcoming Treatment Lymphedema
If you suffer from lymphedema, then you know that it is a constant reminder that you had breast cancer -- not that you really need one. But lymphedema is probably the only side effect of breast cancer treatment that is more difficult to overcome, mainly because it is the result of a drastic change in the lymphatic system that affects how it works.
Approximately 30 percent of women treated for breast cancer will have an incidence of lymphedema.
The lymphatic system helps coordinate our body’s immune system's function to protect it from foreign substances. It includes an extensive network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes.
The lymphatic system functions as a natural filter system in our body. The filters that do the work are called lymph nodes. Excess fluid is collected from the space between tissues in the body and moves through the lymph vessels. The fluid (called lymph) isn't pumped through the body like blood, but instead is "pushed" through the lymph system as the vessels are compressed by surrounding muscles.
Lymph nodes remove certain harmful substances from the lymph fluid, such as bacteria and debris. The fluid from most tissues or organs is filtered through one or more lymph nodes before draining into the bloodstream.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema, as defined by the National Cancer Institute, is a condition in which extra lymph fluid builds up in tissues and causes swelling. It may occur in an arm or leg if lymph vessels are blocked, damaged or removed after breast cancer surgery or radiation treatment.
There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary.
Primary lymphedema is rare and is caused by the absence of, or abnormalities in, certain lymph vessels at birth.
Secondary lymphedema occurs as a result of a blockage or interruption that alters the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system and can develop from an infection, cancer, surgery, scar-tissue formation, trauma, deep vein thrombosis (a blood clot in a vein), radiation or other cancer treatment.
What Causes Lymphedema in Breast Cancer Survivors?
Lymphedema develops after breast surgery because, in most cases, it requires the removal of lymph nodes. This results in the alteration of the pathway that drains the fluids involved in the immune system. Lymphedema can occur at any time after the surgery, and if untreated it can become worse. If you see any evidence or notice symptoms of lymphedema at any point after your breast cancer treatment, consult your doctor right away. Symptoms include:
- Swelling of part of your arm or leg or your entire arm or leg, including your fingers or toes
- A feeling of heaviness or tightness in your arm or leg
- Restricted range of motion in your arm or leg
- Aching or discomfort in your arm or leg
- Recurring infections in your affected limb
- Hardening and thickening of the skin on your arm or leg
What are the Treatment Options for Lymphedema?
Lymphedema treatments vary, depending on the stage and cause of the illness. The most important aspect of treatment is learning how to care for your health. Your doctor will teach you how to follow your prescribed treatment.
If the initial signs and symptoms of swelling are caused by infection, antibiotics may be prescribed. Other treatments may include bandaging, proper skin care and diet, compression garments, exercises and manual lymphatic drainage massage, a gentle form of skin stretching and massage.
You can control lymphedema by doing the following:
- Maintaining good nutrition
- Reducing foods high in salt and fat
- Including 2 to 4 servings of fruits and 3 to 5 servings of vegetables in your daily meal plan
- Eating a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need
- Using the package label information to help you to make the best selections for a healthy lifestyle
- Eating foods high in fiber such as whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables
- Drinking plenty of water
- Maintaining your ideal body weight
- Avoiding alcoholic beverages
You should also consider exercising regularly; however always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen.
To improve your cardiovascular fitness, you should perform aerobic activities (including walking, swimming, low-impact aerobics or specially prescribed exercises) for 20 to 30 minutes at least 3 times a week.
If your normal exercise routine includes weight lifting with your arms, check with your doctor determine the best time to resume this activity and if there are any weight restrictions. You should discontinue any exercise that causes any pain. If your arm or leg (on the side where you had surgery) becomes tired during exercise, cool down, then rest and elevate it.
You should also be cautious in your daily activities. avoid any potential infections:
There are some other things to be mindful of in controlling your lymphedema:
- Wear gloves while doing housework or gardening.
- Avoid cutting your cuticles when manicuring your nails and use care when cutting your toenails.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water, especially before preparing food, after using the bathroom or after touching soiled linens or clothes.
- Protect your skin from scratches, sores, burns and other irritations that might lead to infection. Use electric razors to remove hair and replace the razor head frequently.
- Use insect repellents to prevent bug bites
The following resources are available to help you learn more about lymphedema:
- Avoid tight clothing, shoes or jewelry. Wear well-fitted bras and make sure bra straps are not too tight. You should wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes and avoid tight hosiery. Wear watches and jewelry loosely, if at all, on the affected arm.
- Avoid heavy lifting with the affected arm (even a purse or bag)
- Avoid repetitive movements of the affected arm (such as scrubbing, pushing or pulling). Do not carry a purse or bag on your shoulder (the side where you had surgery).
- Keep your skin meticulously clean and dry your skin thoroughly (including creases and between fingers and toes) and apply lotion.
- Take precautions during visits to your doctor, and make sure your blood pressure is checked on the unaffected arm. Avoid injections or having blood drawn on the surgical side, if possible.