Lymphedema is abnormal, chronic swelling that can develop as a side effect of breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy.
It might not sound serious, but it’s essential that you understand what it is and why it needs to be treated early.
Lymphedema doesn’t get better on its own and can lead to serious complications if left untreated.
1. Cancer Treatment Can Compromise Your Lymphatic System
Breast cancer and its associated treatments are some of the most common causes of upper extremity lymphedema. Around 17% of breast cancer survivors develop lymphedema*.
It usually occurs in the arm and hand, but sometimes it affects the breast, underarm, chest, trunk, and/or back*.
2. Lymphedema Can Develop Months or Even Years Later
Breast cancer survivors are at a lifetime risk of developing lymphedema.
3. Lymphedema Only Gets Worse Without Treatment
Without treatment, Lymphedema doesn’t get better.
Breast Cancer survivors might be tempted to ignore, or even justify, the swelling thinking it will go away.
Unfortunately, the swelling only progresses and can lead to serious complications like lymphorrhea (seeping of lymph onto the skin’s surface), cellulitis, lymphangitis, erysipelas, and fibrosis.
4. There is Currently No Cure for Lymphedema
Lymphedema is a lifelong condition where, as yet, there is no cure.
The gold standard of Lymphedema treatment is called Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) which includes manual lymphatic drainage/massage and multi-layer bandaging.
5. Early Intervention is the Key to Living Normally
The earlier you detect lymphedema the better. In the earlier stages, it can be reduced and controlled so that you can live a normal life. If caught early enough, it can even be reversed!
Unfortunately most take action too late for it to be reversed – whether from a lack of education, denial, incorrect dismissal by a doctor or thinking it’s “just fat arms”.
6. Educate and Advocate for Yourself
Sadly, and alarmingly, a large portion of the medical profession tends to sweep lymphedema under the rug either by misdiagnosing, or dimissing it as normal swelling that will go away on its own.
You need to educate and advocate for yourself to be diagnosed and treated.
Even before you start cancer treatment, take the time to speak to a Lymphedema Specialist to determine any prevention or risk mitigation strategies.Speak to a Lymphedema Specialist
7. Awareness and Monitoring are Essential
Keep a measurement journal where you compare your arms, hands, and elbows on a weekly (or monthly) basis.
Measure yourself before you start cancer treatment as baseline.
If you notice any pockets of swelling, consult with your doctor and advocate for an investigation into possible lymphedema.
Note that some swelling after treatment, especially if you’ve had surgery, is normal and will dissipate.
Start Your Lymphedema Tracking Today
We’ve created a printable Lymphedema Tracker for you to track measurements of your arms each month. Let us know which email address to send it to:
Your information is kept private and secure in compliance with PHIPA
Are you in the GTA?
If you live in the Greater Toronto Area, you can book an online consultation with our Certified Lymphedema Specialist. Maria will be able to answer your questions, such as:
- What is the process for diagnosis and treatment in Ontario?
- What preventative measures can I take?
- How do I know this is lymphedema and not another kind of swelling?
- How do I apply for government (ADP) funding and what does it cover?
- What type of compression sleeves do I need?