Lymphedema, sorting through the confusion – 7 tips to help
There still seems to be a fair amount of confusion out there about lymphedema in general, the true risk of developing it during or after breast cancer treatment, and about preventative measures a patient should adopt as part of her/his lifestyle. Things are improving, but confusion persists.
Why is there so much confusion?
After my bilateral mastectomy, I remember being instructed to avoid having my blood pressure taken on my left arm. I was also told to avoid having blood drawn from that arm. I was to avoid these procedures from there on out due to the fact fourteen lymph nodes ended up being removed on the left side. However, that was it. I don’t remember the conversation going any further.
As I recall, no one went on to state that I was to avoid these procedures in order to decrease my risk of developing lymphedema. Admittedly, before breast cancer I don’t think I had even heard of this condition.
I didn’t learn about lymphedema until I attended a support group meeting and a speaker gave an informative presentation about it. At that time, I was having some issues and after carefully listening to the speaker, I decided I needed to get things checked out.
Eventually, this led me to an appointment with a physical therapist. Ultimately, it was determined by my team that I probably did not have lymphedema – yet. But it wasn’t entirely ruled out either.
This is another thing about lymphedema, unless your case is severe enough, it’s sometimes hard to tell definitively if you do or do not have lymphedema.
I was then directed to be mindful of the potential risk of developing lymphedema.
Measurements were taken so I would have a baseline (better late than never) and could be monitored from that point anyway. It was also determined I should be fitted for a compression sleeve and gauntlet and adopt the typical preventative behavioral measures into my new lifestyle as part of my new normal.
Below are some things I’m doing and not doing:
I do wear a sleeve whenever I fly, and by the way, I had a very interesting experience recently getting through TSA wearing my sleeve. You can read about that here. Why the heck these sleeves are such a mystery to so many TSA employees is beyond me…
I wear a sleeve when I exercise, but admittedly only when I’m doing arm work or if I’m doing something strenuous and working up a “real” sweat.
I don’t generally wear one while gardening, raking or shoveling snow, but often wonder if I should be.
I don’t really worry too much about lugging around heavy stuff because I fear lymphedema, but rather I avoid doing this when I can because I have other arm/shoulder issues.
I do still carry my purse on my left side because I can’t seem to break this habit after all these years.
I don’t worry about insect bites and cuts much, because well, what can you realistically do to avoid insect bites and cuts in real life other than being careful? I still have veggies to chop. I still live where there are lots of mosquitoes in the summer time. I still have weeding and yard work to get done…
I have resumed lifting weights, although it’s important to start slowly, and of course, discuss this with your doctor first. I’m not yet back to where I was on this, but that’s okay.
I avoid having my left arm in a hot tub, and I have yet to go into a sauna because I’m afraid to.
Am I doing enough?
Am I doing too much?
I sure don’t.
And I don’t think I’m alone.
Now there is even more debate as to whether or not some of the long-time recommended preventative measures are necessary. You can find recently updated position statements from the National Lymphedema Network here.
Again, why is there so much confusion?
Like usual, the simple answer is because there are no definitive answers. Lymphedema remains a bit of a mystery. It’s hard to determine who is truly at greatest risk of developing it and in this, too, there may be a genetic factor at play.
The following tips might help in sorting through the confusion; however, they are not to be taken as medical advice:
- Know your own medical/surgical history. If you’ve had surgery involving lymph nodes, find out how many were removed. Get a written record of this.
- If you are facing surgery for breast cancer (or any surgery involving lymph nodes), ask to be measured beforehand so there will be a recorded baseline. This will enable you to be more effectively monitored later on if swelling occurs.
- Discuss lymphedema risk with your doctor(s). If you don’t bring it up, they might not. Also discuss their viewpoints on preventative risk behavior adjustments, if any, that you will be advised to make.
- Learn what you can. Visit reputable sites such as: The National Lymphedema Network; Step Up, Speak Out and Lymph Notes.
- Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of lymphedema such as a heavy or tight feeling, swelling, change of color or general change in skin condition of the affected extremity. As always, if in doubt, get things checked out.
- Remember you know your body and your lifestyle best. Make decisions, adaptations (after learning what they are, of course) that you feel might be beneficial and also be changes you can live with. Recommendations are evolving on this front, so ultimately you decide.
- Ask questions and keep asking until you get answers that make sense to you.
Sorting through the confusion about lymphedema can be challenging. Becoming a well-informed patient and self-advocate regarding lymphedema is up to you.
Nothing new there, right?
Other posts on lymphedema you might be interested in:
Do you have lymphedema?
Have you adopted any of the recommended preventive life-style measures?
Do you feel confused about lymphedema issues at times?