6 tips for coping with cancer-related lymphedema
More and more people are surviving and thriving after cancer, but patients who undergo cancer treatment can experience uncomfortable side effects, like lymphedema, years later. Research is underway to identify solutions to these cancer treatment side effects, but in the meantime, patients need to know there are methods to help them cope.
Lymphedema, a collection of protein-rich lymphatic fluid, usually affects the arm or leg, and is most common in women who have had breast surgery and radiation, who have had a large number of auxiliary lymph nodes removed, or people who develop infection after surgery. It’s caused by an abnormal flow of lymphatic fluid into the arm or leg.
Typically, the flow of lymphatic fluid going into the arm or leg is equal to that coming out. Lymphedema develops when the amount of fluid going in is greater than what is coming out, which causes blockage and swelling.
Lymphedema can be mild to severe. In some cases, it can
cause extreme swelling and limit mobility. It’s important that you notify your
physician if you experience any lymphedema-like symptoms, which can include:
Swelling in your arm or hands
- Pain or redness in your arm or hand
- Feeling of tightness in the arm or hand
How to manage
There currently is no cure for lymphedema, but there are
techniques to help you cope, including:
Skin care. It’s
essential to avoid infection following surgery. Your care team can help you
identify the best techniques for proper hygiene to help minimize your risk or
injury and infection.
Moderate exercise is critical for all aspects of healthy living. There are
stretches and specialized movements that can help loosen tissue and provide
better movement of lymphatic fluid.
Massage. Two types
of massage are used to treat lymphedema, including a very precise and gentle massage
and soft tissue mobilization that helps loosen scar tissue that can cause
These elastic fabric garments are worn over the arm or leg to help move fluid
out of the area and prevent new fluid from developing.
Antibiotics or other medications often can be described to help with the
symptoms of lymphedema.
lymphedema can usually be managed by self-care and other therapies,
surgery may be necessary in some cases to
drain excess fluid and reduce swelling.
Not every cancer patient
will develop lymphedema symptoms. It’s important to discuss all symptoms and
concerns with your care team to fully understand and follow their
recommendations and advice for healthier living post-treatment.
Pam Schlembach is an
associate professor of radiation oncology at MD Anderson in the Woodlands.
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