Lymphedema is an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in soft body tissues which in turn causes swelling. It’s a common problem in cancer patients and may be caused by the cancer itself or the cancer treatment. It mostly occurs in the arms and/or legs but can occasionally happen in other parts of the body.
The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system and is a major part of the body’s immune system. The lymphatic system comprises a network of organs, lymph nodes, ducts and vessels that run throughout the body and these work together to aid the immune system to cleanse the body of any debris, abnormal cells or pathogens. Lymph is a clear colourless fluid that contains white blood cells (called lymphocytes) that help the body get rid of toxins, infections and other waste materials. The lymphatic system also absorbs fats and fat-soluble vitamins from the digestive system and delivers these nutrients to the body cells and also removes excess fluid and waste products produced by the cells.
In a person with cancer, lymphedema can be caused when surgery and/or radiation has removed, damaged or blocked the lymph nodes in the underarm, groin, pelvis or neck area. This condition can develop immediately or sometimes occurs weeks, months or even years after therapy has finished and the swelling can range from mild to severe. Lymphedema of the arms often occurs in breast cancer patients who have had all or part of the underarm (andaxillary) lymph nodes removed. Lymphedema in the legs may occur after surgery for any pelvic, gynaecological, colon, bladder, testicular or prostate cancer or melanoma. It can also develop in the face, head and neck after surgery and/or radiation to treat head and neck cancer.
Treatment can help control symptoms of lymphedema and can include exercise, compression treatment, skin care and massage. Exercising and keeping active helps to improve the flow of lymph and moving the affected limb helps to drain excess fluid. The use of compression garments such as sleeves, stockings, special bras and bandages can compress the affected area. Specialised massage called lymphatic drainage massage can also help. There are two types -manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), which needs to be administered by a trained professional or self-massage called simple lymphatic drainage (SLD) can help drain fluid and reduce the swelling.
In Chapter 3 of The Cancer Journey – Positive Steps to Help Yourself Heal both Polly and Pam describe how they had considerable success treating their own lymphedema and on her website, Polly’s Path To Health & Happiness, Polly gives her 10 tips to heal lymphedema http://pollynoble.com/2013/02/the-10-things-i-did-to-heal-my-lymphedema/.