About Lymphedema after Cancer Treatment

What is lymphedema?

The body has a network of vessels carrying lymph, called lymphatic system, similar to the blood vessels system. Lymphedema is the buildup of this clear fluid, lymph, in the upper or lower limb (arm or leg).

Lymphatic fluid consists of a clear fluid containing infection-fighting cells instead of blood. Lymphedema occurs when the lymph flow is obstructed. This happens usually after surgery or radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

Lymphedema commonly presents with symptoms including:

  • Limb swelling
  • Aching pain
  • Feeling of heaviness or tightness in the affected limb
  • Difficultly in moving the affected limb

The development of lymphedema and its symptoms is slow and may take weeks, months of even years to appear following the cancer treatment.

Is there a test for lymphedema?

Lymphedema can be diagnosed by history and physical examination including measuring the circumference of affected limb and comparing to the normal one. No specific investigations are needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Is there anything I can do to feel better?

It’s highly necessary to avoid any infections or injury to the affected limb. Several ways to prevent limb swelling due to lymphedema include:

  • Wash your skin with mild soap everyday to keep the skin clean
  • Take care while cutting nails, don’t pick the skin around them or cut your cuticles
  • Avoid skin from getting dry and cracked by using lotion
  • Avoid manual razor and use electric razor
  • Use sunscreen when you go out in the sun
  • If you have lymphedema in arm, wear gloves when cooking, gardening or doing other things that can damage skin
  • In case you get a small bite, scrape or cut on your leg, foot, arm or hand, gently clean it with soap and water and use antibiotic medicines as prescribed by your doctor. If the infection don’t heal quickly, consult your doctor and discuss in detail
  • Don’t have i/v lines, acupuncture, blood draws or shots in the affected limb
  • Avoid having blood pressure reading on the affected side if the arm is affected

Several ways to prevent swelling due to lymphedema include:

  • Avoid close fitting clothes and jewelry, except for any special bandage or garment advised by the doctor
  • Avoid steam baths, saunas or hot tubs
  • Control your weight
  • Avoid hanging the arm or leg for longer periods without moving
  • When sitting or lying down, raise your limb on pillow

Should I see a doctor or nurse?

Consult your doctor when:

  • The swelling increases
  • There is rash or redness
  • The affected limb is warm to touch
  • There is fever (not due to other illness including cold)

How is lymphedema treated?

There is no cure for lymphedema. However the swelling can be reduced by various treatment methods, making it comfortable. Treatment is most useful in earlier stages therefore consult the doctor expert in managing lymphedema as soon as you notice any symptoms of lymphedema.

Management of lymphedema includes:

  • Exercise: exercise prevents lymphedema from getting worse. Always wear a sleeve or compression bandage during exercise. Discuss in detail with your doctor about which exercises should be performed
  • Compression bandaging: These are special bandaging used to keep the swelling down by putting gentle and steady pressure on the swollen region
  • Compression sleeves: They work similar to the compression bandages and help reduce the swelling by applying gentle and steady pressure on the swollen region.
  • Manual lymphatic drainage: a physiotherapist helps move the fluid built up in the affected limb by massaging it.

Can lymphedema be prevented?

It’s not possible to prevent lymphedema usually, however if detected and treated earlier, it can be prevented from getting severe and complicated.