Lymph is a clear fluid that contains antibodies and flows through the lymphatic system of the body. If this fluid is unable to properly circulate, it can build up in the soft tissue of a limb and cause swelling. This condition, called lymphedema, is common in breast cancer patients whose lymph nodes have been damaged or removed during their treatment.
There are numerous signs that might indicate the presence of lymphedema, including:
• Trouble moving and bending a joint
• Swelling of the arm or leg (and sometimes fingers or toes)
• Hardening or thickening of the skin
• Persistent ache, pain or burning sensation in the limb
• Tight feeling in the skin of the affected area
These symptoms can vary and depend on the severity of the condition.
Daily skin care is crucial to prevent and manage lymphedema. Clean, hydrated skin helps reduce the risk of infection which can cause or exacerbate this condition. Take precautions and avoid activities that can lead to you getting cut, scratched or burnt. You should also wear sunscreen and refrain from using ice packs, since exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures can aggravate symptoms.
Other types of prevention and treatment include manual lymph drainage, complex decongestive therapy and wearing compression garments.
If left untreated, lymphedema can lead to severe complications such as a bacterial skin infection or an infection of the lymph vessels. Speak with your health-care team if you notice signs of lymphedema.