Lymphedema in breast cancer patients - Breast cancer advice

Breast cancer and lymphedema

Lymphedema can occur after breast cancer surgery in which one or more of the lymph nodes have been removed. It might happen soon after surgery or it may take years to rear its ugly head. Some patients experience chronic pain with this incurable condition and sadly many don’t have access to health professionals with sufficient knowledge about its management.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of lymphedema and to seek expert advice and help if you suspect you’re suffering from it. The condition may not be curable but it’s certainly manageable and there are measures which can be taken to alleviate your pain, improve your quality of life and prevent the problem from getting worse. So be don’t be fobbed off by anyone who tells you there’s nothing that can be done about it and seek out a health professional or clinic that specialises in lymphedema management.

What Is It?

Lymphedema refers to a build up of fluid in the lymphatic system which is a series of vessels running throughout the body. These lymph vessels act as a kind of filtering and purifying system and are a vital part’s of the body’s immune and defence arsenal.

In rare cases lymphedema is inherited and babies of just a few months have been diagnosed with it. It can develop in any part of the body but is most common in the legs and arms. Patients who have undergone breast cancer surgery with removal of the lymph nodes are at risk of developing what’s known as secondary lymphedema – i.e. it’s not inherited but is brought on by the damage done to the breast’s lymph nodes. Symptoms include pain or swelling in the underarm area or hand, a feeling of numbness or heaviness in the arm and/or redness and signs of infection. Watch out for these symptoms occurring in the arm on the same side where you had your breast surgery. With early treatment and management, lymphedema can be kept in check; left untreated it can lead to all sorts of complications including chronic infection and loss of movement in the affected limb.

Lymphedema can be effectively managed in a variety of ways – with the use of massage to the affected arm, with gentle exercise and with the use of compression sleeves and bandages. But you need to take specialist advice from a health professional who really knows what they’re doing because heavy-handed massage and over-zealous exercise can do more harm than good.

Special lymphedema pumps are sometimes used to help the flow of the lymphatic fluid but not all hospitals provide them and they’re expensive to buy. Some medical insurers cover the cost of these pumps – but if you do buy one, either on the Internet or from a specialist high street store, make sure you get expert advice in using it.

There are certain steps you can take to reduce the chances of developing lymphedema in the first place. These include maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly and taking extreme care to avoid infections through cuts, insect bites, razor nicks etc. If you do get an infection, however slight, consult your doctor immediately because you might need a course of antibiotics to reduce the risk of lymphedema developing. Under no circumstances allow a vaccination, injection or blood test in the arm on the side where you had surgery. If you’ve had a double mastectomy, any needle procedures should be performed on the leg rather than the arm.


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