Breast Cancer Awareness: Lymphedema
Lymphedema is a potentially dangerous complication that sometimes follows breast cancer treatment. According to some studies, about 30% to 40% of all breast cancer survivors develop lymphedema following breast cancer treatment. Lymphedema can develop several years after treatment, and can lead to complications such as infections in patients. Luckily, becoming aware of the symptoms of lymphedema, can help avoid further health risks.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema results from a blockage in the lymphatic system that prevents lymph fluids from draining in the legs and arms. This therefore results in the swelling of the arms and legs as fluid accumulates in these areas.
Lymphedema is potentially dangerous since the lymphatic system is responsible for the collection of bacteria, viruses and waste products throughout the body. This is done through the circulation of lymph fluid, which transports waste through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes. Infection-fighting cells known as lymphocytes - which are found in the lymph nodes - then filter out waste that is then flushed out through the body.
While there are several factors that can cause lymphedema, this chronic condition is often associated with cancer and cancer treatment since it affects the lymph nodes. The following are potential causes of lymphedema:
- Patients whose lymph nodes were removed during cancer treatment. This is particularly common among breast cancer survivors since the lymph nodes in the armpits are often removed or severed during treatment.
- Radiation therapy can cause scarring, inflammation or swollen lymph nodes and lymph vessels
- Cancer cells or a tumor that grows near a lymph node can restrict the flow of lymph fluid
- Infections or parasites can obstruct lymph vessels
- Injury can damage the lymph nodes or lymph vessels
Symptoms of Lymphedema and Potential Complications
The following are common symptoms of lymphedema:
- swelling of the arm or part of the arm
- swelling of the leg
- swelling of fingers or toes
- heavy or tight sensation in the arm or leg
- restricted range of motion
- pain, aches or discomfort of the arm or leg
- recurrent infections in arm or leg
- hardened or thickened skin in affected area
Swelling can range from mild to severe, from barely noticeable to significant impairment. It is important to seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the above symptoms and suspect that you may have an infection.
Other potential complications of lymphedema include elephantiasis - in which the leg is hardened and increase the risk of repeated ulcers and infections - and lymphangiosarcoma, which is a rare type of soft tissue cancer.
Getting proper diagnosis of lymphedema can be difficult as the condition is often mistaken for other health complications such as heart problems, thyroid problems, kidney problems and deep vein thrombosis.
If you experience persistent swelling the arms, legs and lymph nodes, it is important to make an appointment with your doctor to receive proper diagnosis and subsequent lymphedema treatment. Your doctor will assess your symptoms as well as your medical history. The following tests may be performed if lymphedema is suspected:
- Radionuclide imaging of your lymphatic system (lymphoscintigraphy) using dye injections
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan
Treatment of Lymphedema
There is no cure for lymphedema; however, there are treatment options available to patients in order to prevent potentially life-threatening flare-ups associated with lymphedema.
The most common treatment is known as complete decongestive therapy and involves a gentle massage technique performed by a certified lymphedema therapist. The aim of this type of therapy is to stimulate new pathways for the lymphatic fluid, after which the affected area is bandaged using fitted compression garments. Treatment usually involves sessions of three to four hours a day, for a period of several weeks.