Lymphedema is a common occurrence in breast cancer patients that have had a mastectomy with lymph node removal or radiation that caused inflammation or scarring in the lymph nodes. Without lymph nodes to drain fluid from the body, fluid in the affected appendage builds up with nowhere to go, causing swelling.
Lymphedema can also cause decreased range of motion, feelings of tightness or heaviness, discomfort, infection, and hardening or thickening of the skin. Breast cancer patients with lymphedema usually experience these symptoms in one or both arms.
While there is no cure for lymphedema, which is a life-long condition patients battle, symptoms can generally be managed through the use of massage, compression sleeves, and certain exercises. More drastic options may involve surgery to reroute lymphatic vessels or to transplant new lymph nodes into the effected area.
Lymphedema doesn’t have to be a debilitating condition for most people, but it can be dangerous if left unchecked. If you experience lymphedema symptoms, it is important to get advice from your doctor, treat your lymphedema properly, and monitor the condition to make sure it isn’t getting worse.
Below is a list of the four stages of lymphedema to help you understand how serious your condition is so that you can make more informed choices about your lymphedema treatment.
During this stage, there are likely no visible changes to the limb. You may, however, feel a tired, tingly, or heavy feeling in the limb. At this stage, a full recovery is possible with proper care.
In stage I lymphedema, the limb is mildly swollen and may cause discomfort or a tingly or heavy sensation, but elevation eases the symptoms. When you press on the skin, it gets a temporary pit which goes away shortly afterward. Symptoms may improve at night and come back during the day.
If the limb becomes more swollen and elevation does not relieve the symptoms, you’ve likely reached stage II. The tissue has become inflamed, and putting pressure on the skin no longer leaves a pit, due to the hardening and thickening of the limb. Tissue damage is not reversible at this stage, but the condition is still manageable. Proper care can keep it from getting worse.
Stage III lymphedema is relatively rare, but it’s important to take good care of yourself so you don’t ever have to reach this point.
During this stage, the effected limb becomes large and misshapen, the skin gets leathery or wrinkly, the and the tissue becomes hard and thick. Liquid may ooze out of the skin or be trapped in blisters, and the skin may be dry or scaly. The severe damage to the tissues is not reversible at this point. The weight of a limb with stage III lymphedema can be debilitating, causing limited mobility and other conditions. In rare cases, patients have had limbs amputated or even died because of stage III lymphedema.
Lymphedema is an all-too-often overlooked side effect of a mastectomy or radiation, and, if left untreated, it could become a severe health problem. But it doesn’t have to rule your life. With proper care, a person with lymphedema can do anything a person without lymphedema can do.
If you have lymphedema or believe you may be developing lymphedema, talk to your doctor about your symptoms and what you can do to keep the condition from causing unnecessary damage to your body. Share this article with your friends to remind them not to take their health lightly.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?