A recent study reported that nearly 10 million Americans will suffer from lymphedema. This debilitating, painful, chronic condition develops when a normally-functioning lymphatic system is blocked or damaged resulting in fluid collection in tissues of the body. One-third of all breast cancer patients suffer from some form of lymphedema, while patients with head and neck cancers, sarcomas and melanomas make up a significant number of additional cases.
Treatments may cause lymphedema. Patients who have undergone aggressive surgery, with or without additional radiation or chemotherapy treatments, have an increased susceptibility to lymphatic build up. Surgeries, especially those that include removal of lymph nodes, disrupt the lymph flow. Radiation treatments can cause diffuse scar tissue throughout the treatment area, which can also block lymphatic flow. Moreover, chemotherapy can result in changes to tissues throughout the body, damage to organs and again disruption of the lymphatic flow.
Development of lymphedema may occur within months of cancer treatment or even five to 10 years after treatment. Reversal of lymphedema is difficult, if not impossible. Unfortunately, it can be a lifelong issue as many patients suffer years after their cancer treatments have concluded.
Educating cancer patients on lymphedema is important. They need to know what symptoms to look for and what exercises they can do to help prevent lymphedema. Also, cancer patients should be followed closely by a doctor familiar with lymphatic drainage and referred to a certified lymphatic specialist at diagnosis and again at any signs of trouble.
Ask your cancer fighting team if they have a certified lymphatic specialist or ask for a referral to one at your diagnosis to make sure that YOU are a part of your team and can be proactive to prevent developing lymphedema.
Dr. Kris Gast is a board certified radiation oncologist. She has been in practice for 28 years, the last 21 at Fort Smith Radiation Oncology in Fort Smith. Her column Cancer Demystified appears the third Friday each month in the Times Record. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.