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Reducing Your Risk of Lymphedema After Cancer Treatment

by Jeannette Zucker, DPT, CLT-LANA, CSCS, WCC

Knowledge image

To help prevent lymphedema, avoid wearing tight shoes or clothing.

Lymphedema occurs when a person has a compromised lymphatic system, such as when lymph nodes are removed during surgery for cancer. Because lymphedema isn’t a largely publicized side effect, there are many misconceptions regarding the condition. For example, after lymph node removal, a person is given a long list of things to avoid in order to minimize the risk for developing lymphedema. This education on lymphedema precautions often results in that person feeling overwhelmed and believing that he or she won’t be able to continue living life as before. Some take it to the extreme and turn the recommended precautions into overly strict rules, while others find the information too much to take in and, therefore, completely block it out.

Rather than overburden you with a long list of lifestyle limitations, I want to offer you a fresh perspective on lymphedema. It is important to find a balance, a place somewhere between denial-induced negligence and lifestyle-restricting regulations. I think it is possible to avoid or delay the onset of lymphedema and do it in a way that allows you to maintain your quality of life.

This balance is achievable when you realize that all these precautions are really things you should have been doing all along. The do’s and don’ts for lymphedema are the same general recommendations everyone should follow to maintain good overall health. They are a gentle reminder to use good old-fashioned common sense.

Avoid Constriction
Shouldn’t we be doing this anyway? All too often, we put our bodies through discomfort for the sake of beauty and fashion – wearing tight shoes that cause blistering or tight jeans that leave red marks around the hips and knees, or carrying heavy bags that leave marks across the shoulders. Beauty and convenience need not require constriction.

Avoid Inflammation
Avoid extreme temperatures, such as hot tubs and warmer-than-lukewarm baths, or going out without gloves on a freezing winter day. Both can cause inflammation. Avoid trauma as best you can. Bumps and bruises can cause inflammation. That’s not to say you can never go skiing again. You just have to be a little more careful.

Avoid Weight Gain
Research shows that increasing your weight can contribute to lymphedema. Eat healthy and maintain your weight, or even shed a few pounds, to look and feel your best.

Get Treatment
Manual lymphatic drainage is a type of hands-on therapy that helps move lymphatic fluid and reduces swelling. If you are experiencing symptoms of lymphedema, you may want to consider manual lymphatic drainage. Another way to reduce or prevent swelling is with compression garments. In addition to limiting edema, compression garments also prevent varicose veins and can even reduce fatigue by assisting the venous system.

It is not necessary to go into hiding after being diagnosed with lymphedema. With a little help and diligence, you can regain your confidence and not only look better but also feel better.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Jeannette Zucker is a lymphedema specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2010.