Understanding Lymphedema

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At some point in your cancer journey you have probably heard the term “lymphedema.” It’s something that cancer patients should be aware of because they may develop the condition. Learn about it here:

According to the Mayo Clinic, lymphedema may occur when fluid builds up and causes swelling in areas where lymph nodes and vessels have been removed. When surgery is performed to remove breast cancer, the surgeon may remove lymph nodes and the surrounding vessels from the under arm area. The nodes are then tested to see if the cancer has spread to the lymph system. When this happens, the blood flow is affected and must go around the areas where the vessels were removed. If the viable vessels are not able to handle the influx of fluid, they may rupture and cause a build up and swell into lymphedema. Women who undergo radiation therapy targeted at the underarm lymph nodes are also at risk for developing the condition because the blood flow in the chest, breast area and arm is affected.

Lymphedema usually builds through a slow swelling. It may start immediately after surgery or treatment but can happen years or months later. If you have had multiple lymph nodes removed, you are at a greater risk of developing the condition. Doctors do not know why some people are more likely to develop lymphedema than others.

In the future
As scientists find less invasive ways to biopsy lymph nodes and to treat breast cancer patients, the amount of people with lymphedema is expected to go down. There is also a procedure called axillary reverse mapping that is being studied to see if doctors can drain lymph fluid from the nodes before performing surgery to lessen the chance and amount of swelling. 

There is no cure for this condition, but early detection is important in keeping the swelling down. Doctors will monitor the situation and usually recommend light exercise, bandaging of the area and massage to ease lymphedema symptoms.

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