Beating breast cancer is a major victory, but it can sometimes come at a cost: After surgery, 20 to 25 percent of survivors develop a chronic condition called lymphedema.
Survivors of certain other cancers, such as melanoma and gynecological and head and neck cancers, are vulnerable, too. Lymphedema’s main symptom is swelling, caused by a buildup of lymph fluid.
Normally, lymph flows throughout the body in a network of vessels and nodes, carrying infection-fighting white blood cells. Cancer surgery or radiation can damage or block the network, causing lymph to accumulate in tissue, which can lead to swelling and a tight or heavy
feeling in a limb or other body part.
A program called complete decongestive therapy may help manage the swelling and other symptoms. Complete decongestive therapy begins as daily therapy guided by trained professionals five days a week for two to four weeks. Then, patients continue similar strategies at home on their own, which involve:
1. Exercise. Brisk walking, dancing and other forms of aerobic activity may help move lymph out of the affected limb and reduce swelling. Stretching and strength training (such as lifting light weights) are important, too.
2. Compression garments. These specially designed sleeves, gloves and stockings of tight, stretchy fabric help prevent or relieve swelling in the affected limb. They’re worn during the day and sometimes overnight.
3. Massage. Your doctor may refer you to a trained therapist who uses massage-like touch to remove excess fluid from your tissues. Giving your swollen limbs a gentle self-massage may help, too.
4. Skin care. Careful skin and nail hygiene can prevent infection. Bathe regularly and use a moisturizer, if needed. Treat small breaks in the skin and scratches with antibacterial cream or ointment so bacteria can’t enter the body.
Weight management also plays an important role in self-managing lymphedema—losing excess weight has been shown to reduce swelling.
But most important is your understanding that lymphedema requires vigilant, lifetime management to control symptoms and prevent infection.