One of the biggest things I feared other than my cancer coming back was developing the dreaded lymphedema. Lymphedema is a possible side effect of surgery that can occur after having lymph nodes removed during breast cancer surgery. The risk increases when radiation is added after the surgery. The resulting scar tissue can disrupt the flow of fluid back into the circulation, causing the arm to swell. I was at risk for lymphedema because of my surgery and radiation. Sadly, this is a lifelong risk that does not decrease over time.
For years, I have seen patients with swollen arms that were wrapped like mummies for weeks, only to be forced to wear a tight compressive sleeve every day. Not only did it look tight, uncomfortable and hot, but it was not the least bit attractive.
During a busy holiday weekend one year after my treatment, I awoke to pain shooting down my right arm into my hand. It was a constant ache that went on for about a week. I thought that I had slept wrong and ignored the pain; even though I found myself holding my arm up because it hurt worse when it was hanging down at my side. One week later, I woke up to a swollen right arm and hand. The pain was significantly better, but I could not ignore the tightness and redness in my arm. Needless to say, this got my attention. Did I have a blood clot?, I thought. Surely, this isn’t lymphedema.
An ultrasound of my arm confirmed that there was no blood clot. By then, the swelling had resolved. The arm was a little tender when I saw my oncologist a week later, but not swollen. She referred me to lymphedema therapy anyway. When the therapist measured my arms, my right arm was a wee bit larger than the left, but I was right-handed, so she was not concerned. Since I had pain and an episode of swelling, she suggested I wear a sleeve and do light exercise and strength training in preventing more swelling. I got fitted for my sleeve and I wore it a few times, before deeming it uncomfortable and throwing it in my purse. One month later BAM! The swelling was back, along with redness, pain, and itching. I reached in my purse and put on my sleeve vowing to wear as instructed and do the instructed exercises.
Lymphedema often has warning signs such as pain, numbness, stiffness, difficulty moving the arm, firmness, and tightness that develop, sometimes years before any swelling occurs. Tell your doctor if you have or develop any of these symptoms.
- No limb constriction on the affected side.
- Avoid trauma or injury to reduce the risk of infection
- Avoid prolonged ( > 15 minutes) exposure to extremes of temperature
- Maintain optimal weight
- Wear well-fitting compressive garments for strenuous activity.
Lymphedema is a serious condition. If left untreated, it can significantly impact your quality of life. If treated early, symptoms can be minimized or even reversed.
You may recall I shared my experience with skin changes when I went through radiation.
: Wearing your compression sleeve is much cuter than walking around with a swollen arm. I’ll take the compression sleeves any day.