Lymphoedema is the name given to the swelling experienced by those who have a poorly functioning lymphatic system. Cancer patients frequently find themselves experiencing Lymphoedema, in part due to the effects of cancer itself, and in part due to the side effects of today’s cancer treatment. Lymphoedema has a number of negative effects, including overall discomfort and pain, poor circulation, poor waste fluid drainage, and the risk of developing infections throughout the body.
The signs of Lymphoedema include fatigue, swollen limbs, and the general accumulation of bodily fluid throughout the body. Often Lymphoedema is found in the legs and arms, but also in the head or neck. Lymphoedema is most commonly caused when the lymphatic vessels are injured, such as in the case of the biopsy or dissection of the lymph node, after surgery, or after radiation therapy. Many cancer treatments can damage the lymphatic system, with breast cancer treatment being a major culprit. Breast cancer patients will often find that after treatment for their breast cancer they suffer from Lymphoedema in both the breast area and in the arm closest to the breast that has been treated. It is thought that one fifth of women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer will develop Lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema occurs in three stages, and can also be measured by grade. The severity of Lymphoedema ranges from Grade 1 (mild) all the way up to Grade 4 (gigantic oedema). The former is a mild occurrence of Lymphoedema, while the latter, also known as “elephantiasis”, results in terrible swelling of the arms and legs due to the fact that the lymph vessels are completely blocked. Lymphoedema tends to develop gradually, and may not be noticeable until months or years after the cancer treatment, as often it takes time for blockages to become apparent, or for the lymph vessels to break down.
While Lymphoedema can’t be cured, it can be managed. It is possible for cancer survivors to help manage Lymphoedema through compression therapies designed to help stimulate lymph flow. These therapies, which often involve pressure garments and massage techniques, can help remove the build-up of fluid in the system. Surgery is sometimes used in severe cases to help remove fluid build-up, but it not a long-term solution, as the fluid will gradually build up again over time. It is also suggested that low-level laser therapy may help to relieve the symptoms of Lymphoedema in cancer survivors suffering from this condition.