“First I have Cancer and Now I have lymphedema” is a common statement I hear as a lymphedema therapist. Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can easily put an individual into a tailspin and then arms, armpits and chest starts swelling up and then you’re told you have lymphedema.
According to the National Cancer Institute, anywhere from 5-17% of women who have one lymph node removed develop lymphedema. Among women who have lymph node removed from the armpit commonly called an axillary lymph node dissection, the percentage is higher — from 20-53% — and risk increases with the number of nodes taken out.
What is lymphedema? To sum it up as simply as possible it’s a collection of fluid between all the cells in an area of tissue. Frequently with breast cancer is is described as swelling just under the armpit, and in all parts of the time. My patients typically describe it by an achiness, heaviness tightness in an area and sometimes burning. Removal of lymph nodes and radiation can increase the chance of developing lymphedema.
My biggest wish for breast cancer patients aside from being successfully treated with no signs of it spreading is that physicians educate their patients about the risk of lymphedema and send them to a therapist to learn prevention, risk reduction and signs of lymphedema.
That is not in any way to say physicians and surgeons don’t educate their patients but I believe when dealing with the diagnosis and the whirlwind of tests, treatments, surgery, talk of chemotherapy and radiation that patients are so overwhelmed with everything going on sometimes they don’t hear the discussion about risk of lymphedema.
The earlier lymphedema is identified the better the outcome. Lymphedema does not need to progress to the horrible pictures you can find on the internet if managed well.
Management is the key.
Ways to manage lymphedema are:
1) manual lymphatic drainage (a very light superficial massage
2) compression if needed commonly an arm sleeve
3) exercise and
4) skin care.
If you have lymphedema or question if you have it please feel free to speak to your physician or myself. It is important to be treated by a certified lymphedema practioner and soon there will two at LifeQual Center.