Therapists, patients raise awareness on lymphedema, potential side effect of cancer treatment

ROCKY MOUNT (WSLS 10) – Mary Bennett just had surgery to remove breast cancer, including 16 lymph nodes, when it happened.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Bennett’s arm swelled.

“My arm got twice as big as it is now. See it’s a lot bigger than the other,” she explained, holding out both arms.

She recalled the pain.

“It’s very painful. And it hurts really bad. You cannot move, I mean you can’t use it because you can’t really can’t move it. It hurts so bad. And then the swelling.”

It’s called lymphedema. It consists of swelling, usually in the arms or legs. It differs from normal swelling one might see with an acute injury like an ankle sprain, for example. It’s most commonly caused by the removal or damage to the lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment.

Carilion Clinic occupational and certified lymphedema therapist Tara Morris said most patients she sees have never heard of it before their diagnosis.

“The protein accumulates in the tissues of the arm or the leg or trunk or neck and starts to get thick. The skin hardens over time and sometimes there’s even growths that look like warts and skin infections and all kinds of complications,” Morris described.

If left untreated, the symptoms can be extreme; from infection to limbs unable to move.

“It gets difficult (for patients) to feed themselves because they have limited mobility of their wrist or their elbow or shoulder,” Morris said. It can also make it painful to sleep.

There’s no cure for lymphedema, but Morris said the symptoms can be managed, mainly through therapy and what’s called, manual lymphatic drainage, to decrease the swelling.

“It’s like a massage but it’s very light. It’s just getting stretched and it mimics the normal oscillations of the lymphatic system.”

Morris prescribes exercise, meticulous skin care and most importantly, education. Morris said education is especially important for women immediately after cancer treatment so they can look for signs and symptoms.

“Early detection is so much better. If you catch it early sometimes patients just feel like their arm is getting heavy but there’s no visible swelling,” Morris said.

It’s important for patients to see their doctor after surgical procedures and radiation and to learn at least the very basic lymphedema risk reduction strategies.

“Not having an automated blood pressure cuff placed on the affected side, avoiding anything from a pin prick to an insect bite, wounds,” Morris said. “We want to make sure that they’re not even using razors underneath the armpit because anything that can create inflammation can bring on lymphedema or exacerbate the problem that’s already there.”

“We definitely don’t want women to not move their affective side and not exercise. It’s just important that they know to gradually move back into everyday activities.”

That’s where therapy can help.

Bennett said while she hoped she’d be done after breast cancer surgery, she’s hopeful this too, was caught early.

“This is also permanent so we’re trying to get it down to where we can deal with it,” she said.

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