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  • Writer's pictureMiechelle Hwang

Lymphedema: The Facts

As a massage therapist who specializes in Oncology massage I have come across clients who has lymph-edema from time to time, as this is something some cancer patients develop after treatments . As a result of that I have signed up for further education and by the end of 2019 I will hopefully have passed the test to become certified in Manual lymphatic drainage. I will keep every updated on this exciting process.

Let me share some Lymph edema facts with everyone

Lymphedema (limf-uh-DEE-muh) is a build-up of lymph fluid under the skin. Typically, it causes swelling in the arms and legs, though it can also affect the face, neck, abdomen, and genitals


Lymphedema can be a hereditary condition, but it is often seen in cancer patients and survivors who have had lymph nodes removed or affected as part of cancer treatment.

We each have a network of lymph nodes and vessels that transport lymph fluid around our bodies.

Lymph fluid contains white blood cells, which help fight infection. In a healthy person, the body’s muscles provide enough movement to shunt the lymph through vessels, which have one-way valves to control the flow. However, it is common for lymph nodes to be removed during cancer treatment, which causes a disruption in the flow of lymph and creates risk for cancer-related lymphedema.

Radiation treatment can also damage lymph nodes and vessels. If the remaining, non-damaged lymph vessels cannot adequately move the lymph fluid, the fluid builds up and causes swelling. The swelling can be uncomfortable and lead to other medical complications.

To prevent the likelihood of lymphedema, modern cancer surgeries try to remove as few lymph nodes as possible. In recent years, the chances that a patient will develop lymphedema has dropped from 50% to 15-25%. For patients whose surgery is limited to sentinel node techniques (where no more than four lymph nodes are removed) and experience no further impact to their lymph system. Some studies show that a 4% chance per lymph node compromised is present.

Temporary lymphedema can occur right after surgery for up to two months; it is usually mild and can go away on its own. However, chronic lymphedema develops slowly and can show up months or even years after cancer treatment. Once chronic lymphedema has started, it cannot be cured. But early and careful management can reduce symptoms and prevent it from getting worse. If you are at risk for lymphedema, signs to watch for include swelling and redness, as well as parts of your body feeling full or heavy, less flexibility in joints, or trouble fitting into clothes or jewelry in one area of the body.

Most people who develop cancer-related lymphedema do so in the first year following surgery and radiation therapy, and 95% of cases will have developed by three years following treatment. After that time, the risk remains but is very low.

Not much is currently known about preventing the onset of lymphedema in an at-risk person, but evidence suggests that one should avoid overtaxing the lymph system too soon after cancer surgery or radiation. Physical activity increases blood flow, which increases the amount of lymph present in the limbs. Thus, it is recommended to avoid doing too much physical activity too soon after treatment. It has also been suggested that heat, tissue damage, change in elevation, and age could be factors for the onset of lymphedema.

If you have lymphedema, it is important to clean and moisturize your skin and nails, and avoid

irritating or damaging your skin. Preventing infections is key. Avoid excessive heat and over-

exercising, and do not wear tight clothing or jewelry that cuts off circulation.

Lymphedema can be managed by a variety of methods, which include compression garments, exercise, and massage therapy. Compression garments are made of fabric that puts a controlled amount of pressure on different parts of the affected area to help move fluid and keep it from building up.

Exercise helps the lymph vessels move lymph out of the affected area and decrease swelling (it is important to talk to a certified lymphedema therapist before beginning an exercise regimen). Massage therapy for lymphedema involves lightly rubbing, tapping, brushing, or stroking the soft tissues of the body. Massage can help move lymph out of the swollen area into an area with working lymph vessels. The practice is called Manual lymphatic Draining or MLD.

If you think you may have lymphedema, please consult a health care professional. It is important to manage this condition to maintain your health, but lymphedema should not prevent anyone from living well.

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