What Causes Lymphedema?
BY JENN FISHER
Surviving breast cancer is a victory. Contending with lymphedema, a side effect some women experience after breast cancer treatment, can feel like a never-ending struggle. However, a specialized lymphedema rehabilitation program at Lehigh Valley Health Network can help treat and relieve breast cancer-related lymphedema (BCRL).
What causes lymphedema?
Normally, the lymph system (made up of lymph nodes, vessels and ducts) circulates lymph fluid throughout the body. Breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy can damage the function of the system, resulting in blockages that back up fluid into the arms and hands.
“Up to one in five women treated for breast cancer is at risk for developing lymphedema,” says breast cancer surgeon Krista Bott, MD, with LVPG Surgical Oncology. “Women whose axillary (underarm) lymph nodes were removed as part of their breast cancer surgery are most at risk.”
Occupational therapist Kelly Bartels, with Rehabilitation Services–Tobyhanna, is a certified lymphedema therapist. She sees the toll BCRL can take. “Many women feel hopeless because swelling can be significant and impair use of their arms or hands,” Bartels says.
But in Bartels’ hands, BCRL is treatable. “Our goal is to reduce volume, decrease limb size, control risk for infection, and improve overall quality of life,” she says.
Decongestion and compression
Treatment begins with specialized bandaging to decongest arm tissues. “We use compression bandages and specific wrapping techniques to help drain lymph fluid. We also perform manual lymph drainage (MLD) massage to facilitate that too,” Bartels says.
A personalized exercise plan also is part of therapy. “Gentle range of motion exercises help encourage fluid drainage and help you return to daily activity,” she says.
Treatment for BCRL requires commitment from a patient, but the payoff is motivating. “Most times, they see results after their first visit and huge improvements after a few treatments. The time frame to complete lymphedema therapy is unique to each individual, but it will require regular appointments and ‘homework’ using medical-grade compression garments to maintain results,” she says.
Lymphedema signs to watch for
Lymphedema can develop months or even years after breast cancer treatment. Watch for these symptoms and seek help right away:
- Arm swelling
- Heavy feeling limb
- Skin tightness
- Trouble moving a joint
- Burning feeling