Monday 18 November 2013

What Causes Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is Experienced as a Side Effect of Cancer Treatment by Many Cancer Survivors

Anything that damages lymph nodes or vessels can cause lymphedema.

As a side effect experienced by many cancer survivors who have undergone cancer treatment, secondary lymphedema can be caused by surgery, sentinel node biopsy, radiation therapy, or infection. Primary lymphedema is genetic in nature and is caused by problems in the lymph system from birth.

According to the Canadian Lymphedema Framework, which was put together in 2009 to construct a national strategy on lymphedema, it is an "under-recognized and undertreated condition that affects many cancer survivors." They identified some of the reasons for this as being:

  • Lack of awareness among medical professionals about the condition
  • Insufficient education about the lymphatic system
  • Limited access to lymphedema treatment
  • Lack of research
Since the lymphatic system can spread cancer through the body, sometimes the cancerous lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer treatment. And in radiation therapy, while the cancerous cells in lymph nodes or vessels become destroyed, the vessels and nodes can become damaged. It is important to recognize this damage to the lymphatic system and work to minimize the impact through careful monitoring, early intervention and good management of the subsequent swelling that may result.

Early Physiotherapy Intervention Can Be Effective in Prevention of Lymphedema Following Breast Cancer Surgery

There is evidence to suggest that early physiotherapy intervention could be effective in the prevention of secondary lymphedema in women following surgery for breast cancer. Judy Boivin, a physiotherapist working with all types of cancer patients states "We are monitoring cancer patients closely for lymphedema throughout the first year following treatment, at the same time as we are ensuring full range of motion of the limbs and providing education regarding regular exercise and skin care." It is important to minimize the risk factors and identify lymphedema in the early stages.

So although the damage of the lymph system from cancer treatment may be inevitable, there is a great deal that can be done to minimize the impact. Consulting with a cancer rehab professional in the early stages following cancer treatment is recommended.

For related information, read Lymphedema - Canadian Strategy for Management, and our post on What is Lymphedema?

To find a Cancer Rehab Canada near you, visit the list of British ColumbiaSaskatchewanOntario, or Nova Scotia locations.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know that Lymphedema is a side effect to Cancer treatments. That's a really painful side effect! I think it would be horrible to have to go through Cancer treatment and then have Lymphedema and have to go through treatment for that as well. Is there anything you can do to prevent the side effect?