Cancer treatment has many unwanted side effects. If your treatment involved surgery to remove lymph nodes, radiation therapy, or drugs like tamoxifen, you may be suffering from lymphedema. A collection of fluid that causes swelling (edema) in the arms and legs, lymphedema can be very uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating. To get help with this painful condition, you need to be sure to visit a certified lymphedema therapist. Otherwise, you can’t be sure that they’ve completed the necessary lymphedema training to be effective at providing you with real relief.
How Lymphedema Develops
Some people are born with lymphedema or it develops during puberty. But most people develop it after cancer treatment. Normal lymph nodes filter fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses and other substances which are then destroyed by special white blood cells called lymphocytes. If your lymph nodes were removed through surgery, or damaged by radiation or drug treatments, they can’t drain properly. When your body isn’t getting normal lymph drainages, fluid can build up in an arm or a leg. Then, lymphedema can develop.
- Clothes, rings, wristwatches, or bracelets can feel too tight
- Arms and/or legs may be swollen
- Wrists, hands and/or ankles may be less flexible
Complete Decongestive Therapy for Lymphedema
While there is no “cure” for lymphedema, there are a few things you can do to ease the swelling and pain. Complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is an approach that includes manual lymphatic drainage, decongestive exercises and skin/nail care. Before entering into a therapy program, be sure your lymphedema therapist has had the specific training and experience required to gain certification in the field. This training includes extensive education about the lymph node system as well as hands-on clinical work with lymphedema patients.
A certified lymphedema therapist will work with you four or five days a week for several weeks. First, she will perform a gentle lymphatic massage and wrap the affected area with compression bandaging, if needed. The massage should not cause redness, discomfort or additional swelling and the bandages should not be too tight. Be wary of masseuses, nurses and other professionals who claim to know how to perform CDT for lymphedema patients. The wrong massage pressure or bandages that are too tight can cause more harm than good. A certified therapist will know how much pressure to use on the massage and how tight to wrap the bandages. Other aspects of CDT include:
- Exercise: Your therapist will also teach you some simple and gentle exercises to perform while wrapped in the compression bandages. These exercises help promote lymph drainage.
- Skin and nail care: Important for preventing infection, the safe maintenance of your skin and nails will also be a focus of your therapy. Your therapist will discuss skin and nail care strategies, including lotion brands and ingredients that can be used with compression garments.
Other important aspects of your lymphedema therapy include education so that you can manage your lymphedema on your own once the therapeutic sessions are over, fitting you for compression garments, and offering practical tips for successful daily living with lymphedema.