During cancer treatment a person’s lymphatic system can be compromised, which can lead to lymphedema. Factors that impact a patient’s risk of acquiring lymphedema include the extent of surgery and lymph node dissection and radiation therapy. The lymphatic system has a role in both immune function and circulation. The lymphatic vessels are the transportation system that moves fluid, proteins, cellular waste, and bacteria out of the tissues. The lymphatic system also contains white blood cells that aid in immune function. When a person undergoes cancer treatment, the lymphatic system can be negatively impacted. When the lymphatic system cannot perform its job effectively, fluid can accumulate in the tissues leading to swelling. This abnormal accumulation of fluid and swelling in the tissues is called lymphedema.
The warning signs of lymphedema may include the following symptoms in the areas of and around where you were treated for cancer:
- A heavy or achy feeling
- A tightness or decreased flexibility in the joints and surrounding tissues
- Noticeable swelling
- Pain, numbness or tingling
To date, there is no cure for lymphedema, however, the amount of swelling can be reduced and the tissue quality improved in order to increase comfort, mobility and quality of life as well as prevent progression of the disease. The gold standard for lymphedema treatment is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). CDT is a safe, reliable and non-invasive treatment that is performed by a certified lymphedema therapist.
Complete Decongestive Therapy consists of:
Manual Lymphatic Drainage: A manual technique that re-routes fluid to areas in which the lymphatic system has not been compromised and can be eliminated more effectively.
Compression bandaging or compression garments: Techniques that help eliminate fluid and soften fibrotic tissue.
Therapeutic Exercise: Promotion of lymphatic circulation.
Education on precautions and skin care
Lymphatic health and education
If you are undergoing cancer treatment that impacts your lymphatic system either through the removal of lymph nodes or radiation treatment a lymphedema consult may be appropriate for you. A consult includes:
Lymphedema assessment including measurements and evaluation
Education on your lymphatic system's anatomy, physiology and function
Education on how to promote lymphatic health
Individualized lymphedema risk assessment
Education on signs and symptoms of lymphedema