What is Lymphedema?

The global concern of breast cancer continues to increase largely because of the aging and the growth of world population. Women treated for breast cancer or who have had mastectomies, lumpectomies, radiation treatment, lymph node removal, surgeries, infections, or trauma to the limbs often face a lifetime risk of developing lymphedema – a chronic condition that negatively affects the breast cancer survivors' quality of life. One of the most unfortunate and dreaded outcomes of breast cancer treatment is Lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a chronic swelling of specific areas of the body due to the damage to the lymphatic system. Lymph fluid, which is a protein rich fluid, collects in the tissues when the lymph system is compromised. Protein in the tissues attracts additional water, thus resulting in chronic swelling. If left untreated, it may result in hardening of the skin tissue. If an effective treatment program is not initiated, the swelling may keep on increasing.

Most of the time, lymphedema develops in one arm or leg, but it can also be present in both arms and both legs. It may also occur in the hands or feet, and even in the chest, face, back, neck, genitals and abdomen.

Types of Lymphedema

Primary Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema can occur due to any genetic mishap when the fetus is still in the uterus. Symptoms may be present at the time of birth or may develop later, often during puberty or pregnancy. It is most common in the legs, but may also occur in the arms and torso.

Secondary Lymphedema

Secondary lymphedema occurs as a result of damage to the lymphatic vessels usually traumatic injury. Secondary lymphedema occurs most commonly in the arms, but may also develop in the legs.

Lymphedema Symptoms

Breast cancer survivors with lymphedema often experience multiple symptoms such as swelling, heaviness, tightness, firmness, pain, soreness, tingling, stiffness, limb weakness, fatigue and impaired limb mobility of shoulder, arm, elbow, wrist, and fingers. These symptoms are the earliest signs of the increasing interstitial pressure changes that are associated with lymphedema.

Diagnosing Breast Cancer Related Lymphedema

Breast cancer related lymphedema is a chronic syndrome of abnormal swelling of arms, legs and other body parts due to abnormal accumulation of protein rich lymph fluid in the interstitial tissue spaces. This accumulation occurs due to an imbalance between the production of lymph fluid and its transportation. Swelling is the main indication of lymhedema. Breast cancer related lymphedema can also occur in the shoulder, breast, and thoracic regions.

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