Lymphedema is "the build-up of fluid in soft body tissues when the lymph system is damaged or blocked," according to an August 19, 2010 article on Cancer.gov. Cancer or treatment for cancer can raise the risk for lymphedema.
Lymphedema usually develops within three years of cancer surgery. The more lymph nodes have been removed or radiated, the greater the risk.
Breast cancer patients who have had some or all of a breast removed, and/or axillary (underarm) lymph nodes should be vigilant for lymphedema.
While treatments for breast cancer are less likely to cause lymphedema than former treatments like radical mastectomy, it is wise to learn about prevention and care for this condition.
Lymphedema can cause swelling in the arm. The arm may feel heavy, the skin may feel tight. It may be difficult to move her arm.
A July 9, 2011 article on Breastcancer.org advised taking care of your skin. The risk of infection is present any time you have a burn, cut, insect bite, splinter or cuticle damage like hangnails. If your skin is dry or cracked, or if you experience chafing, you could get infected.
Infection can cause fever, redness to the area, swelling, tenderness and excessive warmth to the arm. If you are diabetic, be especially alert to any kind of skin damage, and be careful to keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range.
Seemingly small skin damage can lead to big problems for someone who has had breast cancer treatment. Take it seriously if you see any signs of infection, and see your doctor as soon as possible.
Going to the dentist can be a risk factor for a woman who is having edema in her arm. More bacteria can circulate in the bloodstream after some dental procedures.
There are things you can do to reduce your risk for lymphedema. Keep your skin moisturized. Wash dishes and garden using gloves.
When you're cooking, use oven mitts to protect yourself from hot foods and utensils. Switch to an electric razor. When you sew, use a thimble to protect against stabbing your fingers.
Take breaks if your arm gets heavy or sore. Better yet, take breaks before getting to that point. Keep your arm elevated when resting, using a support to prevent tired muscles.
Avoid extremely hot water in baths, showers or doing the dishes. Hot tubs, saunas and steam baths are discouraged.
Any heat-producing treatments should be avoided, including heating pads and hot compresses as well as deep tissue massage, ultrasound and whirlpool therapy.
Diagnosis of lymphedema is done by physical exam and history, lymphoscintigraphy or MRI.
How to Avoid Lymphedema
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Reviewed September 5, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.