Once diagnosed with lymphedema a patient must deal with the condition for life. As a chronic ailment it requires constant care and maintenance to ensure a comfortable and healthy lifestyle. The condition is caused by radiation therapy and cancer treatments which affect the lymph nodes in our body. It is most common in breast cancer survivors but also has a high degree of incidence with other forms of cancer. In forms of cancer other than breast cancer the lymphedema may be confined to the lower extremities.
Arm lymphedema is prevalent among breast cancer survivors because of the localized damage done to the lymph nodes during breast cancer treatments and surgery. When the lymphatic system is damaged in this way fluid flow in the body is restricted or blocked. Once this occurs it is irreversible and must be managed for life. The best way to avoid the problem of lymphedema is to learn how to reduce the risk beforehand (see earlier posts for tips). Early diagnosis can also help in preventing the condition from becoming serious enough to affect daily life.
Lymphedema is a medical condition often caused by the removal of lymph nodes during a cancer surgery. For breast cancer survivors, this condition may occur in the arm and can cause swelling due to the reduction in lymphatic flow, which backs up the lymphatic fluid when under pressure. While permanent solutions for the pain or discomfort caused by Lymphedema do not exist, there are ways to cope and helpful products that provide some relief on a day-to-day basis.
To manage the swelling of Arm Lymphedema, patients may purchase a ready-to-wear armsleeve, or preferably a prescribed sleeve from a qualified lymphedema therapist. The sleeve provides compression to the swelling and is also a valuable when traveling by plane, as high altitudes can cause swelling to worsen. There are exercises you can do from home to help reduce swelling and a special massage, called a manual lymph drainage massage, which manually moves the fluid from where it has settled.
Research your options – there are many – because no one deserves to suffer.
I keep hearing this and it makes me upset. The issue of not knowing that moving your arm and shoulder – doing the exercises – as soon as the drain is out reduces the risk of getting lymphedema as well as frozen shoulder. Most hospitals will advise you of exercise for lymphedema but some do not or the message is not heard when you are still in shock.
Here are a few exercises you can do:
Walking up the wall – standing facing the wall, walk your fingers up the wall and extend the arm as far as you can without pain.
Arm circles – you can do these both standing and leaning over. These arm circles help the flow of lymph fluid and keep the shoulder flexible.
Head tilts – a) chin to chest and up to upright; b) tilt ear to shoulder, and c) head roll – make a smile on your chest with your chin making sure not to take the head back. These movements open up the lymph system to drain the lymph fluid.
These are just a few of the exercises, but they are so important to do daily. Look for exercise classes in your area that understand lymphedema and the issues around breast cancer. The Healthy-Steps™ program (formerly known as The Lebed Method) is excellent if there is one in your area.
Since I’m due to travel shortly, the thought of lymphedema prevention and protection has crossed my mind. This is an area that people often overlook – feel they are safe and don’t need to worry. Wrong. The air pressure in the aircraft cabin can affect the lymph drainage in your arm, especially if you have had node dissection for breast cancer.
Wearing a lower compression lymphedema sleeve reduces your risk of getting lymphedema during travel. I found the one with a gauntlet (or glove) attached easier to manage rather than having two pieces. It is easy to slip the glove part off when washing your hands.
Also, having the lymphedema sleeve on is a great reminder to be careful when lifting your luggage, especially lifting heavy luggage. The recommended weight for lifting is 15 pounds. Get help if you need it. Most people are willing to be of assistance.
Lymphedema or swelling of the arm or leg is not well understood but at least more common. There is a lot of education and awareness around this subject that is absolutely needed.
What is less known is swelling of the torso. It can come from breast cancer surgery and radiation treatment. I’ve also seen torso swelling in those who have had cancer and surgery in the neck area.
In order to manage this swelling, look for a compression bra or mastectomy camisole that has the compression factor. There are garments listed as slimmers or shapers, not to be confused with the Spanx garments. Compression garments for torso swelling have a graduated compression which moves the lymph fluid.
Some of the slimmers or camisoles are very fashionable and can be worn in place of a bra under a suit or sweater. They also work nicely in layering for a more casual look. Definitely chic!
Lymphedema is a swelling of the arm and/or leg after surgery. Breast cancer and prostate cancer are the two most likely causes. Once you have lymphedema, it is a matter of managing the symptoms as there is no cure. I have talked about ways to reduce your risk, but once you have lymphedema, it is a matter of adapting it into your lifestyle.
One area will be the wearing of a lymphedema sleeve for arm lymphedema or a compression bra and/or camisole for torso lymphedema. You will need to be fitted properly by a trained lymphedema specialist who will diagnose your condition, provide initial manual lymphatic massage and bandaging to bring the arm or torso to a stable condition. They will then prescibe the proper tension and sizing for the compression garment. For some, you will be able to claim this garment on your health insurance.
There are also options for special arm lymphedema sleeves for nighttime use to eliminate the need for bandaging.
As you get familiar with your options, life will move on and you will incorporate these garments into your lifestyle.
There have been many studies on the benefits of exercise for lymphdema and cancer rehabilitation. Exercise get the heart rate up and in doing so, it moves oxygen into the body. Cancer does not thrive in oxygen.
Flexibility is important, especially after cancer surgeries. Gentle movements minimize the build up of scar tissue, decrease the risk of frozen shoulder (i.e. breast cancer), and reduce the risk of lymphedema (both upper and lower extremities) by improving the flow of lymph fluid.
Plus, exercise to music and being part of a group is fun. There can be lots of laughter at a time when life is threatening. Additional benefits are improved self-esteem, conditioning, and more energy. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by participating.
It amazes me how many women who have had breast cancer surgery do not understand the need to wear a preventive sleeve when they travel by air to reduce the risk of lymphedema. It came up again the other day in a conversation with someone I thought would have known.
Most women understand that once they get lymphedema, they need to wear a sleeve. However, there is a lymphedema sleeve with lower compression that is designed to be worn as a preventive measure. I always wear mine when travelling. The air pressure in the cabin can cause a build up of fluid. I did recently read some research that disclaimed this, but the fact is, I do know of people who got lymphedema from cabin pressure. I’d rather be safe then sorry. It doesn’t take much to wear a sleeve.
Lymphedema is swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms and legs, and it is a common risk associated with cancer surgery. Particularly following breast surgery, the affected arm often starts to swell. The swelling often starts in the hands. The same is true of the legs after surgery for colon, prostate and ovarian caners.
Once it’s been diagnosed, it takes daily management to keep lymphedema in check. One effective treatment for lymphedema is the use of compression sleeves after therapy during the day and night to manage the swelling in the area. These compression devices are comfortable, easy to use and come in a variety of sizes.
Wearing a lymphedema sleeve or compression sleeve is not an option when you have lymphedema. The compression helps keep the lymph flowing properly minimizing the swelling. It is also imperative to wear a sleeve, even if you have mild lymphedema, during exercise. Hot weather also seems to create more swelling but not always fun to wear a sleeve in the humidity.
So, having an option for night time bandaging is perfect. In the beginning, your therapist will bandage your arm. There are sleeves available that will give you an inner liner and an outer liner for sleeping so you don’t have to do the bandaging.
Nice to have options and definitely worth looking into.