The completion of cancer treatment can feel like the end of a long and frightening journey. It should be, and can be for most people. In some cases, though, patients who have gone through a successful course of treatment for cancer develop a second condition, lymphedema.
Here, we offer a few things that patients should know about this condition so, if indications arise, they know what to do.
- Not all swelling in cancer patients is created equal.
Lymphedema is a specific disease process involving the flow, or lack thereof, of lymph fluid through an extremity. Lymphedema indicates a blockage in the lymphatic system or damage to one or more lymph vessels. Swelling after cancer treatment could be lymphedema, but it also may not be. There are numerous causes of swelling, so an appropriate workup is crucial.
- There are two forms of lymphedema.
The two main types of lymphedema are primary and secondary. This indicates the cause of lymph backup. Primary lymphedema has a genetic cause. Secondary lymphedema occurs due to damage within the lymphatic system. This kind, the most common type, is usually related to surgery or radiation. Patients who have been treated for breast cancer have a higher risk of developing lymphedema if they have had one or more lymph nodes removed from the armpit. Radiation to the lymph nodes in this area can also increase risk by up to 50%. Treatment for urinary, cervical, or genital cancers may also have a heightened risk if lymph nodes in the groin area are removed.
- Lymphedema can cause significant problems if not treated.
The primary symptom of lymphedema is abnormal swelling in an extremity, usually an arm or a leg. Without proper management or repair, this condition can lead to numbness in the affected limb, limited mobility, or hardened skin. A minor wound or infection could cause a flare up of swelling. People living with unmanaged lymphedema may have difficulty performing normal activities. They are usually also more vulnerable to injury.
- Lymphedema options have expanded.
Historically, patients with lymphedema have been helped through lifestyle modifications and targeted lymphedema massage. Lymphedema therapists are knowledgeable about the various technologies and techniques that can help patients. Still, this nonsurgical approach must be ongoing to properly manage the condition. More recently, lymphedema surgery has become a worthwhile treatment option. Dr. Patel is a lymphedema specialist at Keck Medicine in the Los Angeles area who performs microsurgery techniques that help restore proper lymphatic flow.