How Do I Prevent and Manage Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling in the arms, legs, hands, or feet. People with breast cancer often see it right after surgery to remove lymph nodes. The condition tends to gradually recede.1,2

Breast cancer lymphedema can also reappear months or even years after treatment ends. It happens when lymph nodes and the vessels that support them are removed or damaged during surgery or radiation. Such swelling that occurs long after treatment is called chronic lymphedema.3

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema comes from the word "lymph," a clear, colorless fluid containing a few blood cells. The term "edema" means the buildup of excess fluid in the fatty tissues just under the skin. Lymphedema can happen in the arm, hand, and breast/chest in people with advanced breast cancer.2

Breast cancer lymphedema can greatly impact your quality of life. It may make you more vulnerable to infection, so the faster you get it under control, the better.1

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Lymphedema is a chronic condition that has no cure. But the good news is that it can be managed and sometimes prevented.1

Signs of lymphedema

Breast cancer lymphedema can develop slowly. Symptoms can be vague before any visible puffiness or swelling occurs. Common symptoms include:1,2

  • Swelling of the arm or leg (including fingers or toes)
  • Your jewelry (rings and watch) feel tighter
  • Pain
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Fullness
  • Tightness
  • Heaviness
  • Trouble bending the affected area
  • Infections that keep coming back
  • Skin thickening or hardening
  • Skin color changes in the arm or hand

Ways to prevent lymphedema

Science cannot yet explain why some people develop lymphedema and others do not. However, doctors do know that specific lifestyle changes seem to reduce the chance of lymphedema. They include:1,2,4

  • Exercise
  • Weight management
  • Good skincare

Exercise helps because it encourages the lymph system to drain. But first, get your doctor’s advice about an exercise regimen because you do not want to overdo it. Your medical team can also recommend special exercises and movements to help reduce lymphedema.1,2

Good skincare means using a gentle soap and moisturizer to prevent skin from cracking. Also, keep the skin clean and dry. And use an antibiotic ointment on any insect bites, cuts, or scrapes right away.4

It is also important to maintain a healthy weight. People living with obesity are more likely to develop lymphedema and have a harder time treating it.2

Newer types of lymph node surgery have helped decrease the risk of lymphedema. But many of those with advanced breast cancer still develop lymphedema.2

Treatments for lymphedema

If you have not been able to prevent lymphedema, there are still several ways to reduce swelling, discomfort, and risk of infection.1

Common interventions include:1

  • Exercise, which helps get the fluid moving and draining
  • Compression sleeves, gloves, or socks help fluid move and prevent fluid buildup
  • Elevation, or keeping the part of the body raised above the heart, letting gravity help drain the fluid
  • Massage therapy by someone trained in lymphedema management can get fluid moving. This is also known as manual lymph drainage.
  • Infection and injury prevention includes avoiding cuts, scrapes, and burns. Some examples include using an electric razor instead of a manual one and protecting your hands with gloves when cooking or gardening.

Lymphedema does not get better without treatment. Because the risk of infection is high, you should not try to manage lymphedema alone. Get advice from your medical team, and consult a lymphedema specialist if necessary.

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