After having surgery for breast cancer, the last thing most of us would think about is developing a new debilitating, lifelong condition called lymphedema, but that can be a long-term complication of cancer treatment. In this post we are going to address lymphedema myths and facts for Breast Cancer Survivors!
Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid (white blood cells) collects in the arm (or other areas like the hand, fingers, chest/breast, or back,) causing swelling (edema) to occur. Lymphedema can cause pain and even limit movement.
During breast cancer surgery, some of the lymph nodes in the underarm (called axillary lymph nodes) may be removed to see if they contain cancer cells. When these are removed, some of the lymph vessels can become blocked, which can prevent the lymph fluid from moving. Lymphedema causes swelling in nearby tissue, affecting the arm, breast, back and trunk. In addition, radiation therapy can also contribute to the risk of lymphedema.
Let’s look at some of the myths that surround lymphedema.
Lymphedema Myth: Nothing can be done for lymphedema.
While lymphedema is not curable, it can be treated and managed with therapy. The goals for treating lymphedema are to control the swelling, decrease any pain, improve the ability to move the affected limb, and allow a person to continue with regular daily activities.
Therapists can provide Complete Decongestive Therapy, or CDT, which combines manual lymph drainage techniques, compression, meticulous skin and nail care, and exercise to reroute lymphatic fluid. It’s imperative that treatment starts early to ensure the best long-term outcomes.
Lymphedema Myth: I can’t lift anything or be active anymore.
Exercise is good for everyone, even breast cancer survivors. Lifting and physical activity are fine if you’re not overexerting the affected arm and your symptoms do not increase.
In fact, inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for lymphedema. The lymphatic system requires muscle pumping to operate well, and exercise does just that. In addition, physical activity helps you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce your risk for lymphedema. Lastly, being physically active can help de-stress and positively affect your mental state, improving overall quality of life and health.
It is important to consult your health care provider or lymphedema therapist before starting any exercise program if you are at risk for or have lymphedema.
Lymphedema Myth: I didn’t develop lymphedema right after my surgery, so it’s not going to be a problem.
Lymphedema post-surgery doesn’t happen on a specific timetable. While lymphedema can occur in the days following treatment, it can also develop months or even years later.
It’s important to be aware of risk factors. As we age, our risk for lymphedema can increase. Obesity is a risk factor as well.
Lymphedema can be triggered by injuries in the affected part of the body. Therefore, it’s essential to maintain proper care of the body and skin and be cautious to prevent injury and infection.
Research is inconclusive about whether extreme heat or a change in air pressure can exacerbate lymphedema. But it’s advised that survivors limit exposure to extreme heat in hot tubs and saunas and even during climate heat waves.
Compression garments are ideal for use during extended travel, or anytime you’ll be sitting for long periods of time.
Lymphedema Myth: I’m not at risk because I only had one or two lymph nodes removed.
The number of lymph nodes removed doesn’t correlate to whether you will develop lymphedema. While it’s true that individuals who have five or more lymph nodes removed are at higher risk, those who have had fewer removed can still develop lymphedema. Radiation treatments after surgery can exacerbate a person’s risk for lymphedema regardless of the number of lymph nodes removed.
Understanding lymphedema is an important part of reducing your risk for this long-term complication of breast cancer treatment. We have tried to address the most common lymphedema myths and facts for Breast Cancer Survivors.
If you have concerns about your potential for developing lymphedema, it’s important to discuss it with your doctors and if needed, request a referral to an experienced lymphedema specialist.
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