Have Cancer – Have Lymphedema? What is it?

By Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel

This particular subject is one of my pet peeves.  It has annoyed me enough that is also the topic of the Free Report ‘The OVERLOOKED and UNDER-ADVISED MAJOR RISK of CANCER TREATMENT TODAY: The Inside Story you absolutely NEED TO KNOW whether you had cancer today, yesterday or years ago.’ available at www.cancerhelphub.com.

As a former breast cancer patient, I went along for a number of years thinking that this issue and risk was behind me.  I was through treatment, well on my way to a healed and healthy life.  Well, you can imagine how upset I was when I learned through a workshop that this was not the case.  I would always be at risk for lymphedema, no matter how long ago I had my surgery and treatment.

1990 was the year of my diagnosis.  About 10 years later, was my epiphany.  And in the years since then, not much has changed.  It is still not a well known risk.  It is still not talked about during treatment, although some centers do offer an initial workshop.  Most doctors do not have the time to deal with it or take the time to understand it.  If you feel something not right, they often suggest it is cellulitis – an infection – not lymphedema.  It’s sad, because if caught early enough, the severity of the condition can be lessened considerably.

Why am I so passionate about sharing this information?  Well, for starters, this is a condition I do not ever wish to have myself.  It involves regular maintenance, the wearing of compression garments, unsightly swelling, heaviness, and is downright an inconvenience and would be a constant reminder to both myself and others of my cancer experience.

Here is some quick information for you to digest.

What is Lymphedema?

The following is the definition of lymphedema from the National Lymphedema Network (www.lymphnet.org), an organization with clear and helpful information about lymphedema:

“Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the interstitial tissue that causes swelling, most often in the arm(s) and/or leg(s), and occasionally in other parts of the body.Lymphedema can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired (primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes removed (secondary).

When the impairment becomes so great that the lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues of the affected area. Left untreated, this stagnant, protein-rich fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size and number, but also reduces oxygen availability in the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides a culture medium for bacteria that can result in Lymphangitis (infection).

Lymphedema should not be confused with edema resulting from venous insufficiency, which is not lymph-edema. However, untreated venous insufficiency can progress into a combined venous/lymphatic disorder which is treated in the same way as lymphedema.”

How do you know if you have it?

There are early warning signs that, along with measuring the limb, you may want to know:

  • tingling in the affected limb,
  • a feeling of fullness, the skin feeling too tight
  • a sleeve or pant leg that is suddenly tighter
  • a finger that suddenly swells
  • pitting – where an area pressed by your finger stays indented filling up slowly
  • less flexibility – bending is more difficult
  • any change to your skin

Most important, how can you reduce the risk?

Here are some tips.  For a full description, read the free report.

  • Skin Care – avoid trauma and injury to reduce the risk of infection
    • Cleanliness and proper moisturizing
    • Proper care when getting a manicure or pedicure (i.e. sterilized equipment, do not cut cuticles etc.)
    • Treat scratches and cuts immediately
    • DO NOT let anyone take your blood or blood pressure on the limb at risk.
    • Protect from insect bites and sunburn
  •  Activity and Lifestyle
    • When exercising, start slow, use slow movements, and be aware of how the limb feels.
    • Watch how your limb looks – redness, swelling – head to a doctor or the hospital – could be the start of an infection
    • Lifting – be careful lifting heavy objects.  This can be groceries, boxes, weights, children, suitcases, etc.    Try to remember 15 pounds as a limit, but also be aware of how your limb feels.
    • Being at an ideal weight also is a factor.
  • Avoid limb constriction
    • Purses – carry then across the other shoulder.
    • Garments and jewelry – loose is better
    • Again, no blood pressure on the limb at risk
  • Compression Garments
    • For air travel, wear a prevention garment.
    • Get up and move often
    • Wear a compression garment when lifting weights or other strenuous activity
  • Extremes of Temperature
    • Avoid hot tubs and saunas if possible.  If you do use them, limit yourself to no longer than 15 minutes or when the limb feels different whichever comes first.
    • Avoid extreme cold – especially applicable if you are an outdoors person.

These are just a few basic tips without a lot of explanation.  More information is outlined in the free report.

Who does it affect?

As mentioned, this is not a risk only for breast cancer patients, this is risk for:

  • men going through prostate surgery
  • those having lower abdominal surgery (ovarian, uterine, colon)
    • these cancers affect both men and women
  • head and neck  cancers (brain, thyroid, throat, etc.)

Some conditions are more severe than others, for sure.  No matter the severity, lymphedema is a condition you will want to avoid.

At time of writing, there are some surgical interventions being tested to ‘cure’ the condition.  They are:

  1. Lymphaticovenular bypass wherein through surgery they redirect the vessels in the affected area to avoid the buildup of fluids.
  2. Debulking involves opening up the affected area and removing the engorged tissues – rarely used because of possible damage to the tissues

Both systems have not proven themselves as yet and still require the patient to continue wearing compression garments and have lymphatic massage.  Not sure if the risk would be worth it if one still has to continue the same level of management.  Maybe in time, we will see a ‘cure’.  It seems to be on the medical research radar screen.

I would encourage you to not be complacent and think it can’t happen to you.  So many times, I’ve heard a sad story about someone who for years has been okay, and then in a moment of forgetfulness, finds themselves with lymphedema.

For myself, I am mindful of how I use my arm.  Simple things like:

  • Holding my dog’s leash in the unaffected hand in case she decides to pull suddenly as in seeing a rabbit.
  • Carrying the heaviest grocery bags in my unaffected arm.
  • Using my whole body to lift heavy object – i.e. large dog food bags
  • Lightening the load in my purse and using the shoulder strap on the ‘other’ side – or using a fanny pack – or carrying essential items in my pockets and going hands-free.
  • Exercise regularly but mindful of when I may have overdone it – then take the preventive steps.
  • Disinfecting scratches, insect bites, etc. quickly to prevent infection.  Had a scare this summer – a wasp sting on my finger on the affected arm.  Couldn’t disinfect it immediately as I was halfway around my one hour walk.  I was fortunate – I got it under control, but barely.
  • Using a luggage carrier for use in the airport terminal after I drop off my main luggage – until I got a small carryon bag with wheels.  However, I use the luggage carrier for transporting workshop materials into a building.  Saves my arm.
  • Have my grandchildren climb into my lap when possible rather than lifting them.  If I do lift them, I use my whole body and take the weight mainly in my unaffected limb.

So, the motto is – be informed.  Take precautions.  Be smart.


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