Understanding and Managing Lymphedema
Lymph fluid and lymph nodes play a crucial role in our health, helping fight infection and carrying essential nutrients throughout the body. For women who have breast cancer, physicians may remove lymph nodes in the upper body to determine if the cancer has spread.
Lymph fluid may build up after removal or damage of nodes, causing swelling under the skin—
or lymphedema. This commonly occurs in the arms, hands or shoulder, or areas of the breast and chest. Not every woman who undergoes breast cancer treatment or has lymph nodes removed suffers from this condition—it can happen immediately after chemotherapy or radiation, or it may develop slowly over time.
Signs of Lymphedema
Lymphedema is marked by a feeling of swelling or fullness in the affected areal tingling or discomfort; skin changes; and less flexibility in the shoulder, elbow or wrist area.
You may immediately notice your sleeves not fitting correctly, or that your rings and watches feel tight on your fingers and wrist.
While lymphedema can’t be cured, you can take steps to manage it early on and reduce swelling. Here are three steps for managing lymphedema:
- Ask your doctor about appropriate exercises and stretches to help reduce swelling. He or she will advise you on when to start therapeutic exercises if you’ve recently undergone a procedure or radiation.
- Use the arm or affected area just as you normally would for daily activities, including cooking, getting dressed and eating.
- Wear a compression sleeve that’s recommended by your physician or physical therapist. Ensure it’s fitted properly, as ill-fitted compression garments may increase the risk of lymphedema.
- Follow a physician or physical therapist-recommended exercise plan. You’ll likely be asked to elevate, support and exercise the affected area a few times daily. These exercises help keep lymph flowing through the body and reduce swelling.
- Care for the affected area to prevent infection. Wear loose-fitting clothing to prevent restriction. Protect yourself from burns, cuts and scrapes, and when appropriate wear sunscreen.
What to Know
Most importantly, track your symptoms. If you experience new pain, have a fever or if part of the affected area feels hot, swells suddenly or looks red, contact your doctor immediately. It may indicate signs of infection.