Cancer, without doubt, is a devastating disease, and many of the side effects of treatment are well know. Pain, hair loss, and loss of appetite are just a few.
One that may not be as well known or understood by patients is lymphedema, swelling caused by an accumulation of lymphatic fluid most often in the arms or legs but also in other parts of the body, including the chest and breast. The type of lymphedema experienced by cancer patients can result from surgeries during which lymph nodes are removed. It can also result from trauma, such as a burn or cut, to an affected area.
To explain how to prevent or lessen the effects of lymphedema, Laura Yarish spoke with members of the Breast Cancer Survivors Support Group Tuesday evening, April 14, at Wilton Library. Yarish is a physical therapist and certified lymphedema specialist with the Ahlbin Center for Rehabilitation Medicine at Bridgeport Hospital, with an office in Southport (203-259-7117). She spoke about two other conditions that also often affect breast cancer patients, cording and frozen shoulder.
Nina Marino, clinical director of the Breast Cancer Survival Center, which sponsors the support group, said these issues come up frequently at meetings. “It’s an important topic for cancer survivors to be aware of,” she said.
Lymphedema, Yarish said, can develop weeks or months after surgery, depending on the number of lymph nodes removed and the damage done by surgery.
It is more common in late-stage cancer patients and when numerous lymph nodes are removed or if a sarcoma develops.
It will continue to get worse without treatment, Yarish said, and “once you have it you always have it.”
Early symptoms of lymphedema can be subtle, such as a full sensation in the affected limb, tight-feeling skin, noticing your clothes, or a ring or a watch feeling tight.
“At first the swelling may not be noticeable, but your arm may feel heavy or tight,” she said, adding that as soon as a patient notices it the person should seek treatment.
Lymphedema can be complicated by many things, including:
- Radiation, which can add to scar tissue, especially above the collarbone, where many lymph nodes are found.
- Injury to an affected area, such as a burn, including sunburn, or cat scratch, but even something as minor as a mosquito bite. Injuries stimulate the lymphatic system and can cause an overflow of fluid.
- Wearing anything tight around the wrist.