In a perfect world, you would hear about the risk of lymphedema before cancer treatment. But not everyone does, even though cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients, are at a high risk of developing the condition.
Lymphedema causes parts of the body, usually the parts of the body near the treatment site, to become swollen and inflamed. For breast cancer patients, it’s common to develop lymphedema in the hands, arms, or shoulder area.
When the lymphatic system is damaged because of radiation or the surgical removal of lymph nodes, lymph fluid can no longer move effectively through the body, and it builds up and causes swelling. Risk for developing lymphedema is between 15 to 46 percent for breast cancer patients, though some estimates are closer to 50 percent.
Ask your care team about your risk for lymphedema, and work to avoid lymphedema by using these 10 risk-reducing strategies:
1. Get Loose
Avoid clothes or undergarments that squeeze or pinch the chest and arms, and don’t wear snug-fitting watches or jewelry. These items can restrict flow of the lymph fluid and encourage swelling. If only one side of your body was affected by treatment, try wearing bracelets and rings on the opposite side.
Make sure your bras fit properly, and if you wear a prothesis, find one that doesn’t squeeze. Stay loose and go with the flow!
2. Protect Yourself
The lymphatic system is a part of the immune system and the lymph nodes swell in response to infection. Any cut or scrape can allow bacteria to enter the body and trigger a lymphatic swelling, but remember a damaged lymph system is less able to then drain the fluid and bring swelling back down to normal levels.
Avoid cuts and scrapes by:
- Wearing protective gloves when washing dishes, gardening, or prepping food (anything that puts you at risk for cuts).
- If you shave your underarms, try a hair-removal cream or an electric razor instead.
- If you need to get blood drawn, ask to have it drawn from the unaffected arm or another part of your body.
- If you get manicures, ensure that your salon uses sanitary practices to avoid infections.
- If you get a cut or scrape, wash the area promptly with soap and use an antibacterial ointment. Watch the area carefully and talk to your doctor if you notice swelling or signs of infection.
3. Stay cool
High heat can cause more blood and fluid to flow to a certain part of the body, so shoot for warm water, not hot, when you shower or wash dishes. If you want to use a hot tub, limit exposure and keep affected limbs out of the water if possible.
You should also avoid heating pads and heat-producing treatments, including deep tissue massage, as these can encourage extra fluid and swelling.
4. Incorporate exercise—gentle exercise, that is.
After treatment, talk to your care team about when you can incorporate gentle exercises and stretching to restore range of motion and get the lymph and blood flowing.
Exercise promotes circulation, and good circulation eases swelling. Avoid exercises that put heavy pressure on your affected arms, such as push-ups, heavy weightlifting, bowling, and yoga positions like downward dog.
5. But don’t overdo it!
Exercise is wonderful, but be sure to ease into it with advice from your care team, and be especially careful about heavy objects. Avoid carrying heavy purses or groceries on the affected arm, especially when your arm will be hanging downward. As you get stronger, you can ease back into these activities. Also be careful about intense upper-body movements like scrubbing and raking. Take breaks during these activities when you get tired and try incorporating gentle stretches.
Do be sure to slowly incorporate more stretching and exercise into your routine, as inactivity can cause other complications, like frozen shoulder.
Dry skin is at risk of cracking, which puts you at risk for infection. So this is your excuse to take good care of your skin! Avoid harsh alcohol gels or insect repellant—anything that could dry or irritate skin. Use a gentle moisturizer, especially when temperatures are extreme.
7. Lose weight if needed
Those who are overweight are at a higher risk for lymphedema, so shedding extra pounds can help you stay healthy.
8. Use sunscreen
Protecting yourself from sun damage is good advice at all times, but the lingering heat from sunburn can cause swelling, so layer on the sunscreen! Use SPF 30 or higher and reapply as needed.
9. Work with a specialist
There’s nothing better than getting advice from an expert! A lymphedema specialist can show you exercises tailored to meet your needs and help you regain strength and flexibility. A lymphedema therapist can also use massage therapy to promote lymph drainage and teach you self-massage techniques.
10. Remain Alert!
It’s not helpful to live in constant worry, so don’t let lymphedema risk stress you out. Simply take precaution and be mindful of changes in your body. Talk to your doctor if you start to experience any of these signs:
- Tingling, aches, or warmth in the arms, chest, or underarms
- Decreased flexibility in the shoulder, elbow, or wrist joints
- Shooting pain or a feeling of pins and needles
- Swelling, puffiness, or a feeling of heaviness in the arms or hands
- Clothes or jewelry fitting tighter than they did before
- Changes in skin texture or appearance
Lymphedema can be a debilitating side effect of cancer, so it’s worth it to find out about risk and take steps to take care of yourself. Stay healthy, friends!
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.