What to do if You Develop Lymphedema after Breast Cancer Treatment

breast cancer lymphedema patient

 

What is Lymphedema?

Did you know that up to one in four women with breast cancer will develop lymphedema at some point in their life? Breast cancer treatment places women at lifelong risk for the development of lymphedema. Early detection of lymphedema has been linked to better patient outcomes.

Lymphedema can develop after surgery or radiation treatment for breast cancer.  It generally occurs because lymph nodes have been removed or damaged due to treatment. It's caused by a build-up of fluid in the tissues, usually in the arm on the side of the breast that was treated.

 

Common Lymphedema Symptoms

1. Swelling in the arm or leg on the side of the breast that was treated

2. Pain or heaviness in your arm or leg that may become worse towards the end of the day and improve after resting for a while. This is because the fluid buildup in the lymphedema can become worse if you use your arm or leg a lot throughout the day.

3. Tingling and numbness in the affected arm or leg because of nerve damage, also known as neuropathy, associated with lymphedema.

If you experience any of the symptoms of lymphedema, such as swelling or heaviness in the affected arm or leg, let your healthcare team know, as early management is important to avoid progression.

If you do develop lymphedema following surgery or radiation treatment for breast cancer, be sure to talk to your healthcare team about the best way to manage the condition.

 

Lymphedema Risk Factors

In addition to surgery and radiation treatment, other factors that may increase a woman's risk of developing lymphedema include obesity, age over 50 at diagnosis, heavy smoking, certain types of cancer (including female reproductive cancers such as ovarian or cervical), and certain inherited conditions which affect the structure and/or function of the lymphatic system.

There is no cure for lymphedema, but early diagnosis and treatment can help to reduce symptoms.

 

Lymphedema Treatments

There is no one definitive treatment for lymphedema. Treatment depends on the severity of the lymphedema and the underlying cause. If lymphedema occurs, it is a good idea to speak to a Lymphedema Therapist or other health care professional for guidance on managing it.

Physical Therapy Exercises

Physical therapy exercises can help improve your arm strength, mobility, and range of motion. These may include gentle upper body stretching and exercise moves that don’t require you to stretch or strain your arm. Avoid strenuous exercise as the strain can cause the fluid buildup in the arm or leg to become worse.

Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD)

This technique uses light strokes along the lymph vessels on the arm or leg with lymphedema to help move lymph fluid through your body more efficiently.

Compression Methods

There are two main types of compression methods recommended for breast cancer lymphedema:

1. Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) -- This method uses a machine to gently squeeze the affected arm or leg for short periods of time several times a day. This technique can be done at home as well as in the hospital. The treatment is scheduled during your normal waking hours so that you can continue with your daily activities while receiving treatment.

2. Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) -- This system of compression is recommended for people with chronic lymphedema. It is a comprehensive treatment plan that may include manual lymphatic drainage as well as compression bandaging, massage, and skincare techniques to help reduce swelling and discomfort from lymphedema. The CDT process can take several months to complete and must be done at least once a day, but sometimes twice a day depending on the severity of your condition.

Compression Garments

Compression garments put pressure on the affected area, helping to reduce swelling and prevent further fluid buildup. They come in a variety of styles ranging from pantyhose with wide bands at the ankles, sleeves that go from wrist to shoulder, and full arm-length garments.

According to a study published in the journal, Cancer, wearing compression garments during and after physical therapy can reduce the likelihood of moderate to severe lymphedema by nearly 50%.

The study followed more than 400 women who had undergone surgery to remove lymph nodes as part of their cancer treatment. About half of the participants were randomly assigned to wear compression garments during and after physical therapy, while the other half received conventional care.

The results showed that women who wore compression garments were less likely to develop mild-to-moderate lymphedema.

Avoid Certain Activities

Avoid activities that cause you to strain or stretch the arm or leg with lymphedema. This includes heavy lifting, carrying objects, and exercise that involves stretching the arms and legs.

Cupping Therapy

This involves using cups to create a vacuum on the skin. This helps to improve lymph flow and lower swelling and fluid retention.

Aromatherapy

Certain essential oils, such as lavender and frankincense, can help to improve lymph flow and reduce swelling.

Surgery

In severe cases, surgery may be needed to remove the excess fluid.

It's important to be aware that if breast cancer lymphedema goes untreated, then the swelling and pain will continue to get worse. There's also a risk of developing infections or nerve damage in your arm or leg.

 

Contraindications Associated with Breast Cancer Lymphedema

1. People who have had radiation therapy should not use compression garments around the radiation area, as this can cause further damage.

2. Compression garments should not be worn if you have a fever, as this can increase the risk of infection.

3. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should not use compression garments because they can reduce blood flow to the baby.

 

Can Diet Help with Lymphedema?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what diet is best for breast cancer lymphedema patients. However, there are some general dietary guidelines that may help to reduce swelling and improve overall health.

First and foremost, it is important to drink plenty of fluids. Aim for at least eight glasses per day, more if you are active or live in a hot climate. beverages such as water, herbal tea, and vegetable juice are all good choices. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol, which can cause dehydration.

Another key element of a healthy diet for lymphedema patients is protein. Protein helps to build and maintain muscle mass, which can be especially beneficial in lymphedema patients who have lost muscle mass due to the swelling. Good sources of protein include organic chicken, wild-caught fish, tofu, legumes, and nuts.

It is also important to eat plenty of vegetables. These foods are high in antioxidants, which help to protect cells from damage. Antioxidants can also help to reduce inflammation, which is beneficial in lymphedema patients. Choose a variety of colors to get the most benefit from antioxidants.

Those who notice that certain substances contribute to lymphedema may want to avoid them or try substituting them with other foods that do not cause swelling or discomfort. Some examples of food that may increase lymphedema symptoms include dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and ice cream which contain fat and sodium; fatty foods such as fried foods, red meats, and processed meats; canned foods because of the high sodium content; acidic foods such as citrus fruits which can irritate lymphedema tissue; and sugary drinks such as sodas, which can contribute to inflammation in the body.

Following these general dietary guidelines can help lymphedema patients feel better both physically and emotionally. Swelling can be reduced, and patients may find that they have more energy and less pain. Eating a healthy diet is an important part of managing lymphedema, and it is worth taking the time to find what works best for you.

 

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