Cancer Care

Living With Breast Cancer and Lymphedema: Therapy Options and Tips

Regardless of the rest of my outfit, I wear a black or tan compression sleeve and glove on my right arm almost every day. I've been asked if I'm trying to make a fashion statement; I'm not. The sleeve and glove are part of my lymphedema therapy, which helps prevent my right hand and arm from swelling out of control.

After my mastectomy, my doctor explained that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. They removed 23 of those nodes in a procedure called an axillary node dissection. This meant I was at greater risk for developing lymphedema.

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling that results from the accumulation of lymphatic fluid that may occur because of missing, damaged, or poorly functioning lymph nodes.

The lymphatic system is part of the body's waste management process. Lymph fluid is circulated throughout the body to collect waste products and pathogens. It then filters them through the lymph nodes, which can be succinctly described as little infection-fighting powerhouses located throughout the body. When lymph nodes are missing or damaged, the lymph fluid does not circulate efficiently and can back up and accumulate, causing the limb to swell. The swelling can be painful and reduce the limb's range of motion.

People treated for breast cancer are at risk for lymphedema. This can be triggered by surgery, radiation treatment, or even the cancer itself. Lymphedema typically affects the arm on the same side where the cancer presented. Signs include swelling, tightness or heaviness, aches and pains, reduced range of motion, and frequent infections. Over time, the arm's tissue may even become more thick or firm.

Lymphedema Therapy

There is no cure for lymphedema, but there are a few treatments that can help keep the condition in check. A physical therapist specializing in lymphedema will determine the best way to treat it.

Compression is the most frequent method of controlling lymphedema. Specialized compression sleeves, and sometimes gloves, are worn to help prevent the lymph fluid from pooling in the arm in the first place. Some people wear the sleeves as a preventive measure.

Of course, exercise is important; muscle movements can help circulate the lymph fluid. However, it's a good idea to discuss your exercise regimen with your physical therapist, as it is also possible to trigger lymphedema by overexerting or injuring your arm.

Physical therapists can perform a manual lymph drainage that helps get the lymph fluid moving out of your arm. Your physical therapist can even teach you methods of massaging your own arm to keep the fluid moving. I asked my physical therapist to teach my husband, which offered the added benefit of giving him something to do that actually improves my health: He couldn't fix my breast cancer, but he can make my arm feel better, and that makes both of us happy.

Tips for Living with Lymphedema

It's all about the sleeve. If possible, get extra compression sleeves. It's so important to keep your arm clean, so wash your sleeve daily. You'll also need to change into a clean sleeve after exercising or other activities that cause sweating or get the sleeve dirty. Some companies manufacture lymphedema sleeves in different colors and with beautiful designs if you would like to pretty things up.

Another key to living with lymphedema: Form a partnership with your physical therapist. This is the person who can provide the most help in navigating this condition, helping you through any stumbling blocks that might make it difficult for you to comply with your treatment plan.

Finally, connect with other breast cancer survivors experiencing lymphedema. It's helpful to spend time with others who have had similar experiences, and many support groups offer online chat rooms where you can ask questions and get tips from those in the know.

Living with lymphedema is a hassle at times, but you can find a way to work with it. Develop self-care habits that make your body feel good. Once these become routine, it feels much easier. Eat your vegetables, get some sleep, exercise -- and don't forget to wear your sleeve!

Posted in Cancer Care

Judy Schwartz Haley is a freelance writer and blogger. She grew up in Alaska and now makes her home in Seattle with her husband and young daughter. Judy battled breast cancer when her daughter was an infant, and now she devotes much of her free time to volunteering as a state leader with the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.