What is lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is the accumulation of excessive amounts of protein-rich fluid resulting in swelling in a part of the body (usually the leg in gynaecological cancer patients). Secondary lymphedema is the most common type and develops following damage to the lymphatic system, caused by your cancer or its treatment. Tissue fluid called lymph, begins to collect in one area and does not drain in the normal way. This happens to about 1 in 5 women after surgery and/or radiation therapy to the lymph nodes. If you do not treat lymphoedema, it may get worse. Early signs of lymphoedema These may include transient swelling of a limb or other region of the body. Other symptoms may include aching, heaviness, stiffness, limitation of movement, tightness or temperature changes. Clothing, jewellery or shoes may feel tighter. Lymphoedema is not usually a painful condition but some people report pain and tension in an affected limb or body part.
Reducing your risk of lymphoedema
After treatment, anything that increases fluid collection in your leg can increase your risk of lymphoedema.
- Infection in a cut or graze
- Insect bites
- Being overweight or obese
- Putting too much strain on your leg too early
- You can help to decrease your risk of lymphoedema in the leg by:
- Not using your leg for anything heavy until you are told you can
- Not letting anyone give injections into the leg on the side you have had treated, unless it is an emergency and there is no alternative
- Wearing long pants when gardening or doing housework
- Taking care when playing with pets
- Using insect repellent and high factor sunscreen
- Using nail clippers rather than scissors and not pushing your cuticles back
- Using an electric razor rather than a manual one if you shave
- Avoiding anything that will increase the temperature of your skin, like very hot baths or showers, sitting too close to a heater, saunas, steam rooms and sun beds
- Using a non-scented moisturiser or oil on your skin each day to help it stay supple
- If you do get a cut or scratch on your leg, however small, wash it well and cover it until healed. If you see any redness or swelling around the cut, see your GP straight away. You may need antibiotics.
If you do develop lymphoedema because of your cancer or its treatment it cannot be cured, but there are many ways of reducing and managing the symptoms such as swelling and pain. Early intervention is recommended. Treatment for lymphoedema aims to reduce swelling and prevent the fluid building up again.
Best practice management has a holistic multidisciplinary approach and is provided by qualified lymphoedema therapists.
- Skin care
- Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)
- Compression therapy
- Other strategies to manage your lymphoedema include:
- Avoid standing or sitting with your legs down for long periods of time, as this allows fluid to gather around your feet and calves.
- Movement of your muscles helps to push fluid around the body, so regular gentle movement can help to prevent fluid accumulating.
- Exercise encourages fluid to drain from the lymph vessels. Water aerobics may be particularly beneficial because water supports the joints and does not put unnecessary strain on the knees.
It important to seek help from your lymphoedema specialist or therapist before starting any exercise program.