What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema (or lymphatic obstruction) is an excessive and chronic accumulation of lymph fluid beneath the skin that causes swelling. The swelling (or edema) is most common in the arm or leg, but it can occur in the breast or trunk, head and neck, or genitals.
Primary lymphedema is found in those born with an abnormality in their lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is what most cancer patients have to deal with. It also develops as a result of damage to the lymphatic system, but in this case the damage has resulted from infection, radiation, surgery, or trauma.
After cancer treatment in particular, secondary lymphedema may develop immediately or even months to years later. Specific cancer-related surgeries such as surgical resection of melanoma, breast, gynecological, head and neck, prostate or testicular, bladder, or colon cancer may require the removal of lymph nodes. For example, if you had lymph nodes removed under your arm through surgery, you could develop lymphedema in the chest, back, or arm on that same side.
Signs or symptoms of lymphedema:
- A full or heavy sensation in the limb(s)
- Tightness of the skin or tissue
- Decreased flexibility in the hand, wrist, foot, or ankle
- Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area
- Ring, wristwatch, or bracelet tightness
Possible complications from lymphedema:
- Poor posture
- Pain the lower bank, trunk, hip, neck, shoulder, arm, or hand
- Problems with walking
- Skin infections/fungus
- Tendency to develop cellulitis due to impaired circulation
- Skin breakdown from of decreased blood flow
If you are a cancer patient displaying any of the above systems, especially if you’ve had surgery or radiation treatments, contact your physician. Physical (non-drug) therapies are the standard treatment for lymphedema. The goal of treatment is to help patients continue with their activities of daily living, to decrease pain, and to improve the ability to move and use their limbs (arm or leg).
The National Lymphedema Network can also provide a list of support groups.