Lymphedema after breast cancer
Imagine you have just overcome one of the most difficult challenges of your life. But after being told you have breast cancer and going through all of the tests, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, you find out your challenges are not over.
Because your lymph nodes were removed to make sure the cancer did not spread, you are now at risk of developing lymphedema. In fact, you have stage 0 lymphedema, which means that at any time your arm could swell. This risk does not go away; you have this for the rest of your life.
So what is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition in which the body is unable to properly transport fluid, called lymph fluid, from the tissue back to the bloodstream. This lymph fluid is rich in protein and can be drained only by the lymphatic vessels.
Lymph nodes are like filters along these lymphatic vessels. When lymph nodes are removed, these vessels are disrupted and so is the flow of lymph fluid. The fluid backs up into the tissues, and the limb swells. Use of medications such as diuretics is not recommended because they only get rid of the water, not the protein. This can make the swelling more dense and harder to control.
How is lymphedema treated?
Lymphedema can be successfully managed. The treatment depends on when the treatment begins. If treatment is sought early, close monitoring, exercise and daily manual lymph drainage (similar to a light massage) can be performed to maintain control.
If treatment begins in the later stages, complete decongestive therapy will be required. Compression bandages are usually applied daily to reduce the bulk of the swelling. Once the limb has reduced in size to a manageable level, it is maintained by wearing a compression garment. Lifelong management requires commitment but can be achieved in as little as 15 minutes per day.
To learn more about the Comprehensive Lymphedema Management program at Holy Cross Hospital, call 954-492-5738.
-Syndee Schwartz, Senior Physical Therapist
Rehabilitation Institute, Holy Cross Hospital