Successful treatment for breast cancer can still have many side effects. One potential complication following breast cancer treatment is upper extremity lymphedema. This type of lymphedema can be caused by blockage or interruption of the lymph vessels and/or lymph nodes during surgery or radiation therapy to remove or eliminate the cancer.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the swelling of a body part due to inefficient or ineffective lymph fluid drainage. It occurs frequently in an extremity, usually an arm or leg, but can be seen in the neck, abdomen or genitalia. Lymphedema is a chronic, progressive disease and, if not treated, continues to worsen and cause pain or functional limitations over time.

Know the symptoms

Here are some symptoms to look for if you suspect lymphedema:

• Sensation of fullness in the limb(s)

• Tightness and/or shiny appearance of skin

• Jewelry tightness

• Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area

• Recent infection of an arm or leg

Prevention and control

There is no cure for lymphedema, but you can lower your risk. Follow these tips if you've had surgery or damage to your lymph nodes or vessels:

• Protect the affected limb. Try not to cut, scrape or burn the area -- this can cause infection. Also, talk to your doctor about lymphedema before having your blood pressure taken, giving blood or getting vaccinated in your affected limb.

• Monitor activity. Gradually build up the duration and intensity of any activity or exercise. Monitor the extremity during and after activity for any changes in size, shape, tissue, texture, soreness, heaviness or firmness. Take rest breaks to allow for limb recovery.

• Clean and inspect the area every day. Look for changes or breaks in the skin that could lead to infection.

• Maintain a healthy weight. Extra fat can produce more fluid, placing a greater strain on the lymph vessels. Obesity is a known major lymphedema risk factor.

Get help

If you experience symptoms associated with lymphedema following cancer treatment, contact your physician right away. Doctors can refer individuals with lymphedema for treatment by a certified lymphedema therapist. Lymphedema therapy consists of a manual technique for mobilization of lymphatic fluid out of the limb/body part, exercise, education, compression bandaging and fitting with appropriate compression garments.

Surviving cancer

Lymphedema and many of the common complications experienced following cancer treatment respond very well to effective therapy. You don’t have to live with the limitations caused by lymphedema or other complications after cancer.

Columbus Community Hospital’s Thrive Cancer Rehabilitation CareSM provides specialized treatment approaches by occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech therapists to meet your individual needs. For more information about our personalized cancer rehabilitation, please contact rehabilitative services at the Columbus Wellness Center at 402-562-3333 or go to our website at www.columbushosp.org.

Jill Jakub is an occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist in the rehabilitative services department at Columbus Community Hospital.

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