Question: What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that can cause significant swelling of the arm and hand due to excess lymph buildup in that part of the body. This can occur when the lymphatic system, which is responsible for draining excess fluid, is damaged as a result of cancer therapies.

Question: How common is Lymphedema?

The data on how commonly lymphedema occurs varies widely. Current estimates indicate that between 4–49%1 of patients with breast cancer develop lymphedema. In some women, lymphedema can occur within the first two years after surgery. For others, it can take up to 10–15 years for lymphedema to develop.2

  1. Warren, et al. (2007), Annals of Plastic Surgery, Vol 59, No 4, 464–472
  2. Mortimer P.S., et al. (1996), Q J Med 89, 377–380
Question: Who is at risk of developing Lymphedema?

Women who have had surgery to remove lymph nodes and/or radiation therapy are at risk of developing lymphedema. When lymphedema is not diagnosed early and managed properly, it may become a long-term, irreversible condition affecting quality of life and appearance.

Question: What are the symptoms?

Some of the early signs and symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Rings, bracelets, clothing or a watch band beginning to feel tighter than normal.
  • A feeling of heaviness or fullness in your arm.
  • When pressed with a finger, an indentation in your arm that takes a while to go away.
Question: Can lymphedema be prevented?

Scientists don’t yet fully understand why some women develop lymphedema while others don’t. It is known that earlier treatment gives a better chance of a return to normal function, activities and appearance. Having a baseline clinical assessment before breast cancer treatment begins allows your medical team to better understand what is “normal” for you. It is then easier to detect lymphedema very early in its development.

Question: How is lymphedema measured today?

Unfortunately, most lymphedema is not detected until the arm has become visibly swollen. By this time, in some cases, the condition is irreversible. Once diagnosed, lymphedema is monitored during therapy by either a tape measure or other devices which estimate the total volume of the arm.

However, lymphedema CAN be detected early, and with proper intervention, managed. New technologies, such as bioimpedance spectroscopy (BIS) and perometry, exist that can detect lymphedema at its earliest stages, when intervention can make a big difference in long-term outcomes.

Question: How is lymphedema treated?

Lymphedema cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. Early intervention has been shown to be effective and important.3

Talk to your doctor about treatment options. Some options are:

  • Massage and Manual Lymphatic Draining (MLD): This is intensive massage based on creating spaces in the tissues and then massaging fluid into these spaces and away from the limb. Therapy may need to continue for some weeks until the decrease in swelling is satisfactory.
  • Compression sleeve: Compression sleeves are crucial to maintaining the benefits produced from massage. Graduated high compression sleeves will prevent fluid from re-accumulating once it has been reduced by massage.
  • Bandaging is frequently used when swelling is severe. A combination of bandaging and massage can reduce limb size and then a compression sleeve is applied.
  • Skin care and control of infection: It is important to keep the skin in good condition. Regular hygiene and moisturizing are essential. It is important to take a minor wound seriously and not allow it to become a more severe problem.
  1. 3. Stout-Gergish N, et al. Preoperative Assessment Enables the Early Diagnosis and Successful Treatment of Lymphedema. Cancer, Vol 112, Issue 12; 2809–2819.