Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid in the body tissue. It occurs because the body is either producing too much fluid, or the lymphatic system is incapable of fully removing the fluid that is normally produced.
Cancer patients can develop lymphedema either from the cancer itself or as a side effect of the treatment.
It occurs commonly in women who have had breast cancer surgery with removal of lymph nodes, followed by radiation therapy. However, it is not uncommon for patients treated for prostate cancer, uterine cancer, bladder cancer, and even head and neck cancers to develop lymphedema.
Lymphedema can appear weeks, months or even years after the initial surgery. It may also occur following injury or infection. In each case, normal drainage of the lymphatic fluid is interrupted.
Continuous care is key
For most patients it's a chronic problem that requires a diligent, continuous effort to control. Lymph fluid is more than just water, it contains protein, and without consistent treatment, it can become a permanent condition.
Patients must take consistent care of their skin, making sure to keep it clean, dry and properly moisturized. They should use bandages and compression garments to apply constant pressure to their limbs in order to help move fluid and keep new fluid from collecting.
Caregivers can help patients by learning the proper massage techniques that help with manual lymph drainage, as well as helping to wrap and un-wrap patients' limbs. Caregivers' most important contribution, however, is to be diligent and encourage the patient not to give up.
"It is a chronic condition and the more people supporting them the better," says Kathleen Smalky, M.D., associate professor in the Department of General Internal Medicine at MD Anderson.
Smalky talks more about basic lymphedema treatment, surgical options and new research in this Cancer Newsline audio interview.