Managing Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a condition that can occur when the lymph system is blocked or damaged. Lymph fluid builds up in the area of the body that is not draining properly and causes severe swelling of the tissue. Although the swelling can happen anywhere in the body, it most frequently occurs in the arms and legs. It is usually limited to the arm or leg on the side of the damage, but can effect either or both. This is an unfortunate common occurrence in people who have or have been treated for cancer. Swelling of one or both arms happens frequently in women who have been treated for breast cancer since lymph nodes are often involved. The same holds true with women treated for cervical, ovarian, or other GYN related cancers and swelling of the leg or legs.

Complications – Obvious issues with lymphedema include difficulty finding clothing to fit over affected arm or leg and loss of range of motion, meaning the inability to move and bend the limb because of the extreme swelling. This can be life altering. In more severe cases it can prevent a patient from doing the simplest things like dressing appropriate to go in public; self care such as normal hygiene and cooking and keeping house; or even walking. The change to such basic daily life can lead to depression and other psychological issues. Perhaps more urgent is the risk of infection. Because the swollen tissue becomes damaged and has a lack of oxygen flow, it can become extremely slow to heal. The smallest cut or scrape can become infected and if not treated immediately, has the potential to quickly become a limb, or life, threatening situation.

Treatment – Although there is no cure for Lymphedema, there are often steps that can be taken to reduce the swelling and associated pain. Treatment can include light exercise or massage to help the lymph fluid continue to flow and not pool in the effected area; wrapping bandages around the swollen limb, always wrapping tightest around the fingers or toes and becoming slightly looser as the wrap approaches the body. This encourages the fluid to move back out of the limb where it can more easily be absorbed by the body. Pneumatic compression combines the effects of both massage and wrapping. A ‘sleeve’ that is hooked to a pump is placed around the effected limb. It then inflates, again starting from the finger or toe area and working up toward the trunk of the body, to encourage dissipation of the built up lymph fluid. Once swelling is reduced, doctors often suggest wearing a compression garment to hold the area tight and lessen the chance it will swell to such degree again.

It should be noted that every case is different. Each person’s body reacts differently and underlying health issues can complicate or prevent certain treatments. Wise patients become inventive, using trial and error to find what gives them the most relief. I suffer from lymphedema in both legs. When it was at its worst, I was unable to participate in the simplest exercise and massage and compression garments were out of the question. I found when they began to ache, a sure sign intense swelling was about to happen, I could reduce the impact by wrapping them lightly in elastic bandages, propping my feet above my heart, and applying ice packs. No scientific reason for the ice packs, just know it worked for me. Thankfully, my lymphedema has lessened as time has passed, now just more of a pain and tightness event. This does not happen in all patients, many are debilitated by lymphedema for life.

The information above was furnished courtesy of The Mayo Clinic, the National Cancer Institute, the National Lymphedema Network, and my personal experience with cervical cancer and lymphedema.


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