For many breast cancer survivors, the sudden occurrence of lymphedema is an unexpected — and decidedly unwelcome. Having endured the fear, pain, and trauma of therapies designed to help them survive their dreaded disease, it’s no wonder many women view the development of lymphedema as an insult to injury.
Lymphedema is a chronic, incurable condition in which certain parts of the body experience abnormal swelling and tenderness, due to inadequate drainage of lymph fluid. Lymph is a clear, colorless liquid, comprised primarily of water, which circulates throughout the body’s network of lymph vessels and nodes. This delicate network of vessels roughly parallels the more familiar blood circulatory system. It serves as an important component of the body’s complex immune system.
Under the Radar: A Parallel Circulatory System
Most of us only ever become aware of the lymphatic system’s existence due to an illness, which might cause the lymph nodes in the neck or groin to swell slightly and become — for the first time — noticeable to the touch. After such an illness passes, this swelling subsides and the lymphatic system again recedes from daily awareness.
But events that damage a significant number of nodes — such as trauma, surgical removal, radiation, or chemotherapy — may cause the areas of the body serviced by those nodes to experience a buildup of lymph in the tissues. This occurs due to damage to the nodes or lymphatic vessels.
Among breast cancer patients, lymphedema that subsequently develops in one or both arms is an all-too-common occurrence. Even worse, it can suddenly strike years after successful treatment has been completed. Treatments for breast cancer frequently involve procedures, such as armpit lymph node removal, radical surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation to the area, which may damage the lymph nodes and vessels that drain the arm(s). That’s why up to 25% of women undergoing armpit lymph node removal will eventually develop arm lymphedema.
Of course, other areas of the body may also be affected. As mentioned earlier, the lymphatic system is a sort of parallel circulatory system. Surgery in the groin, for example, can result in leg lymphedema.
Consistent Treatment is Crucial
There are treatments to manage your symptoms and minimize your discomfort, while also limiting the progression of the condition. Lymphatic drainage massage is important. But perhaps the most recognizable, crucial therapy involves wearing graduated compression wear. In most instances, it is essential that you do this regularly, consistently — and precisely as directed by your healthcare provider.
Coping with lymphedema can feel like a burden, but following your healthcare provider’s advice regarding the need to wear your compression garments faithfully is absolutely crucial. Daily compression wear use helps limit the damage undrained lymph fluid can do to your tissues. It also promotes your comfort throughout the day. Breast cancer survivors who develop this disorder of the lymphatic system will be prescribed a compression sleeve for lymphedema. Even one afternoon without your compression sleeve could allow fluid to build up to damaging levels. It’s not worth such a setback to go sleeveless for a day.
Graduated Compression Wear Assists Lymph Drainage
Graduated compression sleeves and other garments (such as hose, gauntlets, etc.) feature tight compression at the point farthest from the heart. The pressure exerted on your limb is slightly less the closer the garment is to the heart. In this way, graduated compression wear coaxes lymph fluid out of the spaces between your cells (the extracellular space) and back into your lymph vessels for recirculation back towards the heart.
Lymphedema warrants emotional support. It may be helpful to enlist the support and understanding of friends and loved ones and to share with others the reason for your daily compression wear. Once they understand the significance of your compression sleeve and/or gauntlet, they will undoubtedly be supportive and empathetic.
Some women struggle with self-consciousness and even embarrassment at first. That’s understandable. Everyone wants to reclaim their old life and move on after beating cancer. But lymphedema may force you to accept a new reality. It’s a reality that involves wearing your compression wear faithfully, every single day. In other words, you must embrace your new reality, and wear your compression garment proudly.
Think of your compression wear as an emblem of your perseverance, courage, and ultimate victory over the awful disease that is cancer. After all, you are far from alone. 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. It may be a club you never wanted to join, but once you’re in it, it’s best to accept it so you can combat the progression of this new medical challenge and overcome it, too.