lymphedema patient with doctor

Lymphedema’s Impact Extends Beyond Breast Cancer Patients

Lymphedema is frequently associated with women following successful treatments for breast cancer. Breast cancer often requires the removal or irradiation of lymph nodes in the armpits or chest, which can trigger the lymphatic dysfunction that results in chronic lymphedema. This common depiction, though, does not fully encapsulate the lymphedema community.  

Men Are Susceptible Too 

Lymphedema is by no means exclusive to women. In fact, it can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or socioeconomic status. Lymphedema is not necessarily a female problem: Men are also susceptible. Nor is lymphedema restricted to the arms. It can affect virtually any part of the body. That’s because lymph vessels and lymph nodes are present throughout the entire body.

Most of us are aware of the heart, veins, arteries, and capillaries, which circulate blood through the body. The lymphatic system is a sort of lesser-known, parallel circulatory system. While we are seldom aware of it until something goes wrong, it serves an important function, circulating the clear, protein-rich fluid known as lymph. It also helps to filter out any foreign invaders that might otherwise contribute to disease. As such, it’s an important component of the immune system.

Most of us only become dimly aware of its existence in childhood, when we happen to experience an illness that causes certain lymph nodes (often in the neck, armpits, or groin) to swell. This condition is typically brief. Nodes soon return to their normal, relatively unnoticeable size, as the immune system wins its battle against a particular infection. Examples may include childhood disease mononucleosis, or perhaps strep throat, or an ear infection.

Trauma, Surgery, Radiation, and All the Rest

Any trauma, surgery, or other damage that affects local lymph vessels or nodes may precipitate the chronic lymphatic disorder known as lymphedema. That means men are also susceptible to this condition. Granted, men are far less likely to suffer from breast cancer, so they are not affected by lymphedema as often, or perhaps as noticeably, as women.

Only men suffer from prostate cancer, however, so only men are susceptible to lymphedema in the groin that may result from prostate cancer treatments. As with women and breast cancer, these treatments may cause damage, require removal, or cause obstruction of local lymph vessels and/or nodes. And that can precipitate lymphedema in the groin.

In these scenarios, lymph is no longer able to circulate through vessels as it did before, so it builds up in local tissues, causing unpleasant swelling, discomfort and tenderness. In the long term, the skin in the area may become fragile and susceptible to infection. Pre-existing conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, thyroid disease, or obesity can all affect the likelihood that a man might develop lymphedema subsequent to prostate cancer treatment. 

And, although it is relatively rare, men can also develop breast cancer. Just as in women, treatments could lead to the later development of lymphedema, due to damage to the local lymphatic system. Men can also be affected by cancers of the head, neck, bladder or kidney, liver or pancreas, and parts of the digestive system. And treatments for these diseases can occasionally damage local lymph vessels or nodes, and create lymph blockages.

Symptom Management Strategies Are the Same

Approaches to managing lymphedema in men are the same as for women. The only difference is that men may need more education and encouragement to remain vigilant than their female counterparts. Precisely because people tend to think of lymphedema as a condition linked to breast cancer among women, there may be a tendency to ignore symptoms or to discount the importance of proactive management of symptoms among men.

And given that skincare is an especially important aspect of lymphedema management, men may be somewhat less likely to address this particular aspect of their condition than women. After all, most women embrace skincare as a normal part of their health and beauty routines, even when healthy. Men, not so much.

What Can Men Do to Minimize the Impact of Lymphedema?

Several factors may improve a man’s lymphedema prognosis. Maintain a healthy weight, for instance. Excess weight is linked to a greater risk of developing lymphedema, and faster progression of the disease once it manifests. 

Learn to care scrupulously for the skin in the affected area. This skin will experience changes due to lymphedema, making it thinner, more fragile, and more susceptible to damage and possible infection. Thus, keeping skin moisturized, protected from the sun and wind damage, and guarded against physical damage, such as scrapes or punctures, becomes especially important. 

Lower your intake of salt, and look for ways to improve your diet overall. This means eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and fresh herbs, and consuming far fewer fried or processed foods. The latter can contribute to increased inflammation in the body, while the former tends to decrease inflammation.

Research shows that eating processed meats of all kinds are linked to worse health outcomes, even among otherwise healthy people. So these foods, especially, should be avoided. Instead, choose lean protein sources such as beans, lean meats (e.g. chicken), or fish. Salmon, in particular, supplies omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential nutrients that actually help decrease inflammation in the body. Wild salmon also contains a potent natural antioxidant, astaxanthin, which can also be beneficial.

Eliminate all sweetened beverages from your diet. This includes both regular and diet soft drinks. Despite their supposed healthfulness, diet drinks have been linked to excess weight gain. Thus the term “diet” is a misleading misnomer. Stick to water, coffee or tea. The latter two feature healthful antioxidant compounds that may also be beneficial. Just don’t add sugar to them. And be aware that drinking plenty of water can be helpful.

Move It 

Get moving! Exercise was once considered problematic for lymphedema patients, but we now know that it’s actually beneficial. Of course, you should consult with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen, but most lymphedema experts agree that light exercise is beneficial for the management of the condition.

Take it easy at first, and monitor any changes in swelling or pain as you go. Powering through the pain is definitely not recommended when dealing with a diagnosis such as lymphedema. By the same token, don’t avoid movement and exercise simply because you fear worsening your condition.

Finally, follow the advice of your healthcare provider to the letter. The worst thing you can do is to ignore advice and hope things will improve on their own. They will not. Lymphedema is presently a chronic condition. That means it will not eventually improve on its own or go away. The best course of action is to acknowledge your new reality and take prudent steps to manage your symptoms. By doing so, it’s possible to minimize the progression of the disease, and limit the impact of symptoms on your lifestyle.

If your doctor recommends lymphatic drainage massage therapy, be sure to take advantage of this treatment. And be sure to order and faithfully wear any compression garments you may be prescribed. These specially designed items can limit the potential damage caused by fluid buildup in the tissues, and help alleviate your symptoms.

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