Often women with breast cancer who have undergone surgery and radiation treatments are prone to have a condition known as lymphedema. In simple terms it is the swelling of the lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels whose job is to carry debris away from your body and help to prevent infection. My therapist explained it to me like this, “It is like a water pipe that has been clogged with debris”. And just like the common cold, there is no cure. However, there are ways to manage it. These are things I have done in my therapy and am currently doing to reduce the swelling.
Exercising regularly – This helps to eliminate the fluid build-up and stimulate your lymphatic system to properly do its job.
Wrapping therapy – This involves using Ace bandages, a foam padding and a sock-like covering placed over your arm. The bandages and padding are wrapped around your arm in a way that reminds you of a barbershop pole. This is used to compress the area and to help rid the area of extra fluid that leads to swelling. After completing therapy I will then use a custom-made arm sleeve, gauntlet and chip vest that will replace these items with the same goal in mind.
Massage therapy – This is performed by a licensed therapist who has had specialized training in proper rubbing techniques that allows the fluid to be eliminated. It is called decongestive lymphatic therapy. Additionally the therapist has taught me manual techniques that I can do at home.
Things to avoid: People with lymphedema should not wear tight jewelry around the affected area. Don’t allow blood to be drawn from that arm or have blood pressure taken in that area. Do not wear heavy purses with strap on that particular arm. Also, when traveling by air wear a compression sleeve. These are just a few of the restrictions that one with lymphedema should adhere to.
Warning – If you notice a fever, rash or blisters on skin, or inflammation this could indicate signs of lymphedema. Your doctor is to be contacted immediately to avoid it from getting worse.
Lifestyle change – Accept this condition as your “new normal” and another challenge to conquer. If you keep on top of it, you will probably be able to carry on with your life as you previously did. With some slight modifications I am getting through it successfully.
Lymphology Association of North America (LANA) at www.clt-lana.org
National Lymphedema Network (NLN) at www.lymphnet.org
Toll Free: 1-800-541-3259
Booklet: Lymphedema: What Every Woman with Breast Cancer Should Know, Hand and Arm Care after Surgery or Radiation Therapy for Breast Cancer