In the United States, over 100,000 women suffered from lymphatic edema (also called lymphedema) as a complication of cancer treatment. Although this condition is no longer new, there are still some facts about lymphatic edema that many people aren’t aware of. Here are some of them:

What You Need To Know About Lymphatic Edema

Fact #1: The risk of having lymphatic edema after cancer treatment is declining.

Lymphatic edema can develop as a side effect of cancer treatment especially if it involves removal of the lymph nodes.

Before, women have 50 percent risk of developing lymphedema following breast cancer surgery. These days the risk is declining.

Those who have axillary lymph node dissection have only a lifetime risk of 15 to 25 percent. The risk is lower (about 6 percent) for those whose surgery is limited to sentinel node techniques.

There is little risk involved with sentinel node techniques as these only aim to remove four or less lymph nodes. The more lymph nodes are removed, the higher is the risk for lymphatic edema.

Fact #2: Imaging tests may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis of lymphedema.

If the person just underwent cancer surgery or treatment that involves removal of the lymph nodes, then the doctor may diagnose lymphedema based on the person’s symptoms. However, if there is no obvious cause for the condition, the doctor may order imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis. These may include MRI scan, CT scan, or Doppler ultrasound scan.

Fact #3: Stages may be used to describe lymphedema.

There are four stages of lymphedema. These are Stage 0, I, II, and III. Every stage describes the progression of the lymphatic edema specifically on the swelling of the affected limbs and the development of possible complications like tissue fibrosis (this can happen in Stage II) and elephantiasis (this can happen in Stage III).

Fact #4: There are ways to keep lymphedema from getting worse.

There are simple ways that can be done to keep lymphedema from getting worse. These include keeping the skin and nails clean to prevent infection, avoiding application of heat on the affected site, wearing sunscreen when heading outdoors, and wearing loose clothes and jewelry to prevent fluid restriction.

Fact #5: Slow, controlled exercises may help prevent lymphedema from developing.

In the past, it was believed that exercises can increase one’s chance of developing lymphedema. But studies have shown that slow, controlled exercises are safe to do for those with lymphedema and may even help those who are at risk prevent lymphatic edema from developing.

Image: Jacopo

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