Lymphedema, a common side effect of cancer treatment, is an accumulation of fluid that results in chronic swelling. Lymphedema can be caused by radiation therapy to or complete removal of lymph nodes affected by cancer.
To help understand the connection between cancer and lymphedema, Mollie Evers, OT, certified lymphedema therapist at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, answers some common questions about the condition.
How does cancer treatment affect the lymphatic system?
Within the lymphatic system are lymph vessels and lymph nodes. Lymph vessels move lymph fluid around the body, and lymph nodes work as filters for infection prevention.
During cancer treatment, it may be necessary to apply radiation treatment to lymph nodes or vessels — or remove them completely — to help prevent the spread of cancer. However, taking out these systems makes it harder for fluid in our body to flow, which causes build up and swelling.
What are the symptoms of lymphedema?
Once the lymphedema process begins, it is often difficult to reverse and control. Knowing the early signs and symptoms of lymphedema can help your doctor begin treatment as soon as possible. These include:
- Tightness in the skin
- A feeling of heaviness
- Fatigue in arms or legs
- Clothing or jewelry not fitting as before
- Visible swelling that does not resolve
How is cancer-related lymphedema treated?
We can treat lymphedema successfully when it’s in the early stages. We keep it under control with compression devices and garments, use of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), compression bandages, pneumatic pumps, certain exercises, skin and nail care, and education. All of these treatment options will be discussed with your therapist and doctor when lymphedema is confirmed.
Can lymphedema be prevented?
No, there is no way to prevent lymphedema, but there are ways to minimize the risk of developing it and slow its progression, including:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Avoiding constricting garments
- Knowing the signs and symptoms
- Communicating with your doctor about risk and risk reduction
What can patients with lymphedema expect from their care?
Patients who are experiencing any of these symptoms, or are at high risk for lymphedema due to their cancer treatment plan, can be seen in our clinic with a referral from their doctor. Education and individualized care are specific to each person because each circumstance is different; however, we provide support and information to each person as we navigate the situation together.
For the news media: To talk with Mollie Evers about cancer-related lymphedema, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.