What is lymphedema? It’s a buildup of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under your skin most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment. It results in a blockage in your lymphatic system which causes swelling, most often in the arms and legs but it can affect the face, neck, abdomen and genitals, depending upon what area of the body was treated.
Early detection of the onset of lymphedema increases the likelihood of successful treatment. Changes are usually subtle and progress slowly. Swelling may not be the first noticeable symptom. Sometimes, it is a sensory change such as a tingling feeling that will come and go, a feeling of heaviness or tightness in the limbs, or other subtle signs like jewelry feeling a little snug or a sleeve feeling a little tighter.
Men and women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are unaware of how important pre-measurements of the upper extremities are prior to undergoing breast cancer surgery or treatment. Requesting a visit to a certified lymphedema therapist before surgery for a baseline measurement of both arms, strength measurements and education of an exercise program to get the arm moving before surgery is key. This one tiny step can decrease the risk of lymphedema being overlooked as just normal swelling after treatment.
Routine follow-up visits are recommended for monitoring one month after surgery, every three months for the first year, then every six months for up to five years after surgery. Sooner follow-up may be needed if any changes are noted.
Leslie Magee COTA, CLT is an occupational therapy assistant and certified lymphedema therapist at MidMichigan Medical Center – West Branch. Learn more about MidMichigan’s unique lymphedema program in Alma, Alpena, Gladwin, Harrison, Houghton Lake, Midland, Mt. Pleasant, Rogers City and West Branch.