About the lymphatic systemThe lymphatic system is an important part of your immune system, helping to remove toxins from your body and fight infection. It is made up of a complex network of lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph tissue throughout the body, with clusters of lymph nodes in the neck, head, armpits, groin, and stomach. Lymph fluid transports toxins to the lymph nodes, where they are filtered and removed. White blood cells are also transported in the lymph fluid, to help the body fight infection.
Causes of lymphedemaThere are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary (or acquired) lymphedema. In Canada, secondary lymphedema is more common than primary lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is usually genetic and occurs in people who are born with a faulty lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is acquired by people whose lymph nodes or vessels have been damaged as a result of vascular disease, surgery, injury/trauma or treatment for some cancers (including breast, ovarian, colon, prostate and others). The leading causes of secondary lymphedema in Canada are lymph node removal and radiation therapy. Lymphedema can come on gradually or suddenly, sometimes many years after treatment for cancer. We offer a preop assessment to people diagnosed with cancer, to help monitor for secondary lymphedema. We also recommend that people who have had lymph nodes removed or damaged watch out for early signs of lymphedema.
Signs of lymphedema
- A new feeling of tightness in the skin.
- A sense of fullness, heaviness or discomfort in an arm, leg or other area.
- Clothing or jewellery feeling tighter than usual on an arm, leg or other area.
- A new onset of numbness or tingling.
- Visible swelling.
Finding lymphedema earlyThe early detection and treatment of lymphedema can help to improve or manage the condition and prevent it from progressing to an advanced stage. When it is detected early, lymphedema treatment is far less complex and costly than if the condition has progressed. Lower rates of secondary lymphedema have been found in people who exercise regularly and seek the advice of a lymphedema-certified physiotherapist.
Treating lymphedemaLymphedema is treated with a combination of therapies and self-care approaches:
- Manual lymphatic drainage massage by a certified lymphedema therapist.
- Compression garments or bandaging.
- Practicing good skin care.
- Regular moderate exercise.
Self-care practicesThe purpose of good skin care is to reduce the risk of infection. Ways to achieve this include:
- Careful nail and cuticle hygiene to prevent entry points for infection.
- Applying antibiotic cream straight away to small cuts or skin abrasions.
- Using a skin moisturizer.
- Wearing gloves to garden or clean the house.
- If possible, having bloodwork, injections and blood pressure monitoring on the other side from where your cancer was treated.
- Redness of the skin, swelling or heat in the affected area could be a sign of infection. If you notice this, please call your doctor or seek medical help right away.