Lymphedema

Lymphedema is swelling in the arms, legs or trunk that occurs from a buildup of lymph fluid which carries cells that help fight infections and other diseases. Lymphedema stops lymph fluid from flowing freely in your body and often causes prominent swelling. Watch for even a slight increase in size or swelling of the arm, hand, fingers, chest wall, trunk or legs. Contact your doctor if you notice these symptoms.

People who have had the following procedures are at risk for developing lymphedema

  • Biopsy 
  • Lumpectomy or mastectomy 
  • Surgery that disrupts lymph flow in the groin or axilla (armpit); these may include surgeries for prostate and gynecological cancers and melanoma 
  • Sentinel lymph node mapping procedures (use of dyes and radioactive substances to identify lymph nodes that contain tumor cells)

Survivors of the following cancer types are at risk for developing lymphedema

  • Breast cancer 
  • Melanoma 
  • Prostate cancer
  • Ovarian cancer 
  • Head and neck cancers 
  • Cancers involving lymph node dissection and radiation to the lymph nodes 

Other factors such as being seriously overweight, having diabetes and taking certain medications such as steroids may also put a survivor at risk for lymphedema. Strategies to lower your risk of lymphedema include

  • When possible, avoid injections, finger sticks, blood pressure checks, or blood draws in the arm that might be at risk for lymphedema (the post-surgery side) 
  • Keep the skin of “at risk” limb clean and gently moisturized 
  • Make sure the “at risk” arm or leg gets proper circulation 
  • Lift the arm above the heart occasionally 
  • Select a light weight prosthetic, if required 
  • Wear only loose fitting clothing and jewelry around the affected area 
  • Avoid heavy lifting, rigorous movements or excessive pressure on the affected limb. 
  • Establish a safe exercise program (if there is discomfort, elevate the affected limb) 
  • Avoid extreme temperature changes (saunas, hot tubs…) 
  • Minimize chances of injury and infection (bruises, cuts, insect bites, scratches…) to the affected limb 
  • Take special precautions when traveling—ask for guidance from a lymphedema specialist

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