Hope for Lymphedema Sufferers
Jennifer Gordon, MSPT, CLT
I had breast cancer surgery. After I finished my treatments, I thought I was getting back to being ‘normal’ again, and decided to traveled by air to visit family. When I got home, my arm swelled…a lot. I thought it would just go away. It didn’t, and now it’s beginning to hurt. Could I have lymphedema?
Many cancer survivors get through their treatments, only to learn that they have a new problem, lymphedema – swelling due to a compromised lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is responsible for circulating lymph fluid in the body to help fight infection. Surgery or radiation of the lymph nodes can result in making the nodes inefficient or blocked. The fluid searches for another way out. If none exists, the fluid backs up into the tissues resulting in swelling, often first noticed as a feeling of heaviness or fullness in the extremity. The swelling is often accompanied by loss of flexibility or difficulty fitting into clothing, and if left untreated and can lead to pain or redness resulting in infection.
Those at risk for breast cancer related lymphedema typically have had surgery that involves sampling or removal of lymph nodes, as well as those who have had radiation to the breast or axilla (underarm) region. One in 3 people who have had node surgery and radiation will develop lymphedema. Some common risk factors including traveling by air, skin punctures, obesity, and wearing tight clothing or jewelry on the involved extremity. Predicting who will develop lymphedema is difficult, but a Certified Lymphedema Therapist (CLT) can help.
Currently there is no cure for lymphedema, however early detection and risk reduction practices can lessen the incidence. A CLT with experience in post-operative breast care and lymphedema can assess your risk factors for lymphedema. If diagnosed early, it can be managed by a trained physical therapist with appropriate exercise, compression, and skin care.
There is hope for the future of Lymphedema management however. In a recent study, Stanley Rockson, MD at the Stanford University School of Medicine found a genetic anomaly in patients with lymphedema. This is the first step in furthering knowledge of the incidence of lymphedema and may result in the development of advances in treatment options. “This is a significant development” states Rockson, this could “mean earlier, appropriate therapeutic intervention…or even reverse its course.” B.Goldman med.stanford.edu/ism/2012/December/lymphedema