Breast cancer surgery, melanoma of the arm or leg and other cancer conditions often include risk for lymphedema. Lymphedema is swelling of the lymphatic system, leading to trapped fluid in parts of your body.
Your lymphatic system includes an intricate roadway of vessels adjacent to your arteries and veins. This roadway carries protein enriched fluid and white blood cells throughout your body, to collect, fight and flush out bacteria and viruses. But when this system becomes blocked or disrupted, the lymphatic fluid cannot drain. This causes swelling, most often in arms, legs or breasts.
Lymphedema rarely appears spontaneously. It is usually a buildup of fluid after surgery, radiation, injury, infection or the cancer itself. If you have lymph nodes removed or damaged during surgery, those nodes stop working to clean up that area of your body.
Your lymphedema symptoms may be very subtle at first. Your jewelry, such as watches or rings, may be tight or you may have tight, heavy fingers or wrists. This swelling is usually constant with lymphedema, not coming and going like other fluid retention. You may not be able to move fully, such as when bending your fingers. Your skin can become hard or thick from fluid pressure in your body. If these areas become red or inflamed, you may be developing an infection. Your doctor will take baseline measurements if you are going through surgery or radiation, to keep an eye on swelling and catch lymphedema before it is a problem.
There are no tried-and-true methods for preventing lymphedema. But you can minimize your risk. Most importantly, pay attention to your at-risk areas and protect them. If you notice abnormal swelling, color changes, sensation changes or changing skin condition, talk to your doctor. Avoid injuring areas of swelling during blood draws or vaccinations, as examples.
Keep your weight in a healthy range. Obesity makes you more likely to experience lymphedema. Exercise to improve lymphatic circulation and improve your health. Of course, always talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine.
Care for your skin and nails, as a priority. Avoid salon manicures or pedicures, as well as those involving cutting or shaving tools. Anytime you notice swelling, talk to your doctor. He or she may provide a compression sleeve evaluation, to determine if that method may help your lymphedema.
There is no cure for lymphedema. It is treatable and manageable, however. Your doctor may recommend specialized manual lymphatic drainage massages to move your lymph fluid around blocked areas and reduce swelling. You may be told to undergo light or remedial exercises designed to manage lymphedema. Compression bandages or garments sometimes help. Of course, your doctor or other treatment professionals are your best resource for lymphedema recommendations and care.
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