Lymphoedema

If breast cancer is invasive, lymph node surgery may be recommended.

Usually the lymph nodes which drain from the breast lie in the armpit. After removal, they are examined pathologically to determine whether the cancer may have moved beyond the breast and thereby help in the decision regarding further treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy or immunotherapy, either alone or in combination.

If you have lymph nodes removed from your armpit or if you have radiation treatment of that area, you are at increased risk of developing lymphoedema, which is a swelling in the arm and hand. It can occur shortly after surgery or years later and is caused by slow or blocked flow of lymph fluid resulting from lymph nodes or vessels being removed or damaged. To avoid lymphoedema, take special care to avoid injury or infection by protecting the arm on the side you had surgery. Download a Lymphoedema Factsheet here

It's important to know the early signs of lymphoedema as according to the Australasian Lymphology Association (ALA), around one in five breast cancer patients are at risk of developing the condition. Events that are known to trigger the beginning of lymphoedema may include:

- air travel, due to the changes in air pressure
- injury to the limb e.g. sprains, fractures, wounds or skin punctures, e.g. mosquito bites, injections, blood tests in the susceptible limb
- burdening the limb by carrying heavy bags on the susceptible hand or arm.
- infections in the skin on the susceptible limb
- exposure to excessive heat including sunburn
- constriction on the limb from blood pressure tests, tight clothes, and jewellery or sleep position.

The warning signs (published by the ALA) may include;  transient swelling of a limb or other region of the body, infection (due to lymph stasis), feelings of aching, heaviness, stiffness in the affected body part or limitation of movement,  tightness or temperature changes to areas of the body.  

The swelling may be aggravated by heat, overuse, sustained positions and prolonged inactivity and be more obvious at the end of the day 

If diagnosed and treated early, this distressing and debilitating swelling can be controlled and reduced, infection prevented, the range of movement of the affected area can be improved, and the quality of life for people with the disorder can be greatly enhanced.  

In New Zealand the current treatment for lymphoedema is based on the five "cornerstones" of care:

  • light touch massage
  • compression bandages or garments
  • extra special care of the limb / area
  • paced exercise
  • medical taping

Find out more about lymphoedema therapy or for lymphoedema support groups in New Zealand, click here
Download a Lymphoedema Factsheet here
To join a NZ support group on facebook click here

The Australasian Lymphology Association also provides useful information on their website

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