Lymphedema Guide for Breast Cancer Survivors

Navigating Lymphedema

If you’ve recently received a breast cancer diagnosis, you may have encountered the term “lymphedema.” While I’m not a lymphedema therapist, my goal is to break down this complex condition in a way that’s easy to understand. Remember, this information does not substitute for medical advice, so always consult your medical team if you think that you may be experiencing lymphedema.

Lymphedema diagnosis and management

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition characterized by the damage or blockage of the lymph system. Fluid builds up in soft body tissues and causes swelling.

It’s a common problem that may be caused by cancer and cancer treatment. 

Shockingly, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 30% of breast cancer survivors will experience lymphedema due to the surgeries and/or radiation involved in their treatment at some point in their life.

Why is this important?

Regardless of the number of lymph nodes removed, individuals are considered at risk for developing lymphedema for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, lymphedema remains a relatively understudied disease, leaving us with limited information.

Lymphedema can occur in any area where lymph nodes have been removed or damaged.

Contrary to common belief, it’s not just limited to the arms for breast cancer survivors. For those with upper body lymphedema, the risk extends to the chest, abs, and neck. Imagine a blockage in the lymphatic system as a dam, and it’s critical to clear a path before breaking it open to allow proper drainage.

Recognizing Symptoms

Signs of lymphedema tend to include feelings of heaviness or tightness, swelling, pain, and even pins and needles.

When my lymphedema flared, my arm felt like it weighed a ton. It took a lot of effort for me to be able to raise my arm and making a fist felt like an enormous task.

Using the pitting test, is a quick way to see if there is indeed any lymph build-up but know that when I did this test – I only tested positive in my hand. The only way I knew for certain that my entire arm was affected was by my lymphedema therapist measuring my arm and comparing it to the non-affected side.

Our bodies have built-in pumps, such as the diaphragm and our muscles! These pumps assist in moving lymph fluid around our bodies, and proper breathing is essential in this process.

For upper body lymphedema, gravity becomes our ally. Simple practices like raising your arm, taking deep breaths, and using “spirit fingers” to pump with your fingers can open up pathways and relieve symptoms.

lymphedema signs and symptoms

If you experience these symptoms, consult your medical team, and consider seeing a lymphedema specialist who can assess and measure your body for lymphedema.

exercise for lymphedema management

Exercise is a critical component

Engaging in a well-designed exercise routine not only contributes to overall physical health but also aids in maintaining optimal lymphatic function.

Understanding how to move your body without triggering lymphedema flare-ups is a valuable skill that I personally use to empower survivors in taking back control over their lives.

I get this question so much in particular – “Can I lift heavy after breast cancer?” The answer is yes, but it’s essential to progress gradually and safely.

Working with a qualified breast cancer exercise specialist or physical therapist can provide you invaluable guidance to allow your body to adapt and build strength without overwhelming your lymphatic system.

medical advances in lymphedema

With the recent passing of the Lymphedema Treatment Act, there’s hope on the horizon. This 12-year-in-the-making law mandates that all insurance companies cover necessary tools like compression garments and pumps. This significant step forward ensures that breast cancer survivors have access to vital resources for managing lymphedema.

In addition to the landmark Lymphedema Treatment Act, there have been so many other medical advances that directly impact lymphedema management for breast cancer survivors.

  • Research on Lymphedema TherapiesOngoing research efforts are focused on developing targeted therapies for lymphedema
  • Advancements in Surgical Techniques – Innovations in surgical approaches aim to minimize damage to the lymphatic system during cancer-related surgeries
  • Lymphatic Microsurgery – Lymphaticovenular anastomosis (LVA) and vascularized lymph node transfer (VLNT), show promise in surgically addressing lymphedema
  • Technological Solutions – Wearable technologies and mobile applications are being developed to assist individuals in self-monitoring for early signs of lymphedema
  • Integration of Rehabilitation Programs – Comprehensive rehabilitation programs, including physical therapy and exercise regimens tailored to lymphedema management, are becoming more widely available
  • Multidisciplinary Care Approaches – This collaborative approach ensures a holistic and personalized strategy for managing the diverse aspects of post-cancer care

These ongoing developments offer hope for an improved quality of life for breast cancer survivors, with an emphasis on preventive measures, early detection, and comprehensive support, which is something very near and dear to my heart.

Knowledge is power

As breast cancer survivors, we deserve to be informed about the potential side effects of both our treatments and surgeries. By staying up to date on the progress of laws and proactively engaging in exercises that promote lymphatic health, we can take control of our lives and enhance our post-breast cancer journey.

Rori Zura Foobs and Fitness Founder

Rori Zura


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