Myths & Facts about Lymphedema
Lymphedema is discouragingly common among cancer survivors. This is especially true of women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer. The removal of lymph nodes under the arm(s), and/or radiation therapy, may damage the lymphatic system. This can hinder its ability to do its job; draining high-protein fluid from affected tissues. This leads to an accumulation of these fluids, resulting in swelling and discomfort.
Myth: There’s No Treatment
It is true that lymphedema is incurable. But that does not mean it is untreatable or uncontrollable. Rather, prescribed therapies—including wearing medical-grade compression wear—can reduce swelling, decrease pain, improve limb mobility, and contribute to an enhanced quality of life, by enabling the affected person to engage in normal daily activities.
Talk to your doctor about Complete Decongestive Therapy. A certified specialist can perform manual drainage, while counseling you regarding appropriate compression wear, skin maintenance, and other approaches, such as prescribed exercises, which will improve your symptoms. Begin sooner rather than later, for best results.
Myth: Lymphedema Didn’t Develop Post-Surgically, So I Dodged a Bullet.
Sadly, this is not always true. Post-cancer, therapy-related lymphedema can develop at virtually any time. While lymphedema often develops relatively quickly following surgery or radiation therapy, it has been known to crop up months or even years later, with relatively little warning.
Even minor insults to the skin in affected areas may precipitate lymphedema. For this reason, women who have undergone mastectomy of the right breast, for instance, are cautioned to never allow themselves to be “stuck” in the right arm for a blood draw. They must also pay careful attention to the general health of the skin, avoiding sunburn, scratches, bites, or other possible irritations to the skin of the affected arm. It may even help to avoid hot tubs or saunas, in order to prevent the arm from overheating.
Advancing age and obesity also appear to be risk factors that increase a cancer patient’s risk of being afflicted with lymphedema. While there’s no cure for aging, it is possible to attain—or maintain—a healthy body weight. In this way, patients may be able to reduce their risk of eventually developing lymphedema following cancer treatment.
Myth: I Only Had Limited Lymph Node Removal, So I Won’t Develop Lymphedema
This also, sadly, does not appear to be entirely true. It is true that removal of five or more lymph nodes is linked to a significantly greater risk of developing lymphedema. But even patients who have merely had one node removed have subsequently developed lymphedema. Every patient is different. There is simply no good way to be sure who will—and who will not—develop lymphedema in response to necessary cancer therapies.
Myth: I Can No Longer Lift Heavy Objects, or Even Engage in Exercise
On the contrary, post-cancer patients should be encouraged to resume physical activity, as long as it does not directly exacerbate symptoms. Being sedentary (not moving; being physically inactive) is actually linked to a greater risk of lymphedema.
Inactivity should definitely not become a cancer patient’s default response to surgery or radiation. Rather, seek to regain as much function in the affected limb as possible. Maintaining general physical fitness is another way a patient can reduce their risk of developing lymphedema. However, one should always consult one’s physician or lymphedema specialist before beginning any new exercise regimen.
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