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Lymphedema: What You Need to Know

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In simple terms, lymphedema is a swelling of an area of the body that’s caused by excess fluid build-up when lymphatic fluid is blocked. Anyone who has had breast surgery that included removal of under arm lymph nodes is at risk for lymphedema and its complications. Radiation therapy to the underarm area can also increase the risk of lymphedema.

For women who develop it, lymphedema can be both a physical and emotional problem. The swelling can range from mild to severe. It can start right after surgery, or it can start months or even years later. Here are some of the signs of lymphedema:

  • Swelling in the breast, chest, shoulder, arm, or hand
  • Part of your body feels full or heavy
  • Skin changes texture, feels tight or hard, or looks red
  • New aching, tingling, or other discomfort in the area
  • Less movement or flexibility in nearby joints, such as your shoulder, hand, or wrist
  • Trouble fitting your arm into jacket or shirt sleeves
  • Your bra doesn’t fit the same
  • Your ring, watch, and/or bracelet feels tight, but you haven’t gained weight

If you develop symptoms of lymphedema, tell your doctor right away. Also contact your doctor if

  • Any part of your affected arm, chest, breast, or underarm area (axilla) feels hot, looks red, or swells suddenly. These could be a sign of infection or a blood clot, and you might need treatment right away.
  • You have a temperature of 100.5°F or higher (taken by mouth) that’s not related to a cold or flu
  • You have any new pain in the affected area with no known cause

To reduce your risk of developing lymphedema, follow your doctor’s instructions and remember to:

  • Always tell nurses, doctors, and technicians that you are at risk for lymphedema. Have your blood drawn, IVs, and shots done in your unaffected arm if you can. Also get flu shots and vaccinations in your unaffected arm or somewhere else, like the hip. Some hospitals place a pink wristband on the affected arm of a breast cancer patient who has had her lymph nodes removed. Other hospitals post a large notice above a patient’s bed to alert hospital staff about lymphedema risks. If the hospital you are in does not post this kind of sign, have family or friends do it for you. These simple and cost-effective solutions may help reduce lymphedema complications during a hospital stay. Also, consider buying a lymphedema medical alert braceletthat will help remind medical personnel which side to avoid for certain procedures.
  • Avoid heavy lifting with your arm on the side that was treated. Carry heavy packages, handbags or children with the other arm or with both arms.
  • Avoid tight-fitting gloves, cuffs, watchbands, rings, etc.
  • Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Avoid sunburn, especially to your arms and chest.
  • Protect fingers from punctures by sharp objects like pins and needles. Use a thimble when sewing.
  • Use insect repellent as necessary to prevent insect bites.
  • Keep your hands and cuticles soft and moist by regularly using moisturizing lotion or cream. Push your cuticles back instead of cutting them.
  • Wear protective gloves with sleeves when doing household chores that use harsh chemical cleansers or steel wool, when gardening or doing yard work, and when working with animals that scratch or bite.
  • Thoroughly wash the area with soap and water if you are cut, burned, or bitten on the treated arm. Keep it clean; use an antibacterial cream or ointment, cover with a sterile dressing, and change the dressing often to help avoid infection.
  • Avoid extremes in temperature; don’t use hot tubs or saunas.
  • Be extra careful when shaving your underarms, and use a clean razor on clean skin.

Remember, if you have symptoms, such as swelling, tightness, redness, or pain in your arm, underarm, breast, or chest, call your doctor right away. Left untreated, lymphedema can lead to other problems, including infection and tissue damage.

For more information about lymphedema contact your local American Cancer Society office, or call 1-800-227-2345. Other information sources include the National Lymphedema Network at 1-800-541-3259, or the National Cancer Institute at 1-800-422-6237.

Para solicitar información en español, llame al 1-800-227-2345. Un especialista en información sobre el cáncer le asistirá en español.



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