After breast cancer treatment, about half of patients develop a distressing and potentially disfiguring complication called lymphedema. The condition involves mild to extreme swelling of the arm closest to the affected breast due to buildup of fluid in the nearby tissues—a result of the removal of lymph nodes and scarring that damage the normal function of the lymph system. This fluid buildup can cause significant pain and loss of arm function. Symptoms may develop soon after surgery or may appear months or even years later. Once lymphedema arises, it can be treated but not cured, which means that prevention is crucial.
Certain steps can help—for instance, guarding against injury to the arm, not constricting the arm and controlling weight. Yet many breast cancer survivors do not follow this advice or take the other precautions that would reduce their risk for lymphedema. Why don’t they?
Insights from a new study: Researchers met with 103 women immediately after their breast cancer surgery to discuss lymphedema and distribute recommendations from the American Cancer Society on how to reduce their risk. The recommendations included moisturizing the arm several times daily…using an electric shaver instead of a razor on the underarm and wearing gloves when doing housework or physical activity to guard against cuts and infection…avoiding tight jewelry and restrictive clothes…protecting the arm from being jostled or squeezed…and not carrying heavy objects.
Six months later, the researchers checked in with the patients—and discovered that only half of them had followed the advice. The biggest stumbling blocks were a lack of confidence in their own ability to make these lifestyle changes…and a lack of effective strategies for coping with stress. How does stress enter into the equation? The researchers explained that, for patients, the behavioral changes needed to reduce lymphedema risk can serve as daily reminders of their breast cancer—reminders that increase anxiety and stress.
The researchers suggested several ways that survivors can boost confidence and reduce stress after breast cancer…
- Develop a system for keeping track of when you do and don’t follow the lymphedema prevention guidelines. When you do comply with them, reward yourself—for instance, by buying that new CD you’ve been wanting or phoning a friend to say, “I did it—celebrate with me!”
- Talk to your family about specific ways they can support your efforts—for example, by taking over tasks (such as those involving heavy lifting) that are not safe for you.
- With your doctor or a therapist, discuss stress-reducing strategies and relaxation techniques that you can use when feeling overwhelmed. For inspiration, check out “De-Stress—Little (or No!) Movement Required”… “How Meditation Can Help Arthritis, Asthma and Other Inflammation Problems”…and “Your ‘Stress Type’ Holds the Key to Stress Relief.”
- Join a local or Web-based breast cancer support group or online chat room. These are invaluable resources for emotional support as well as practical tips on preventing lymphedema. You can find support groups through the National Lymphedema Network… Susan G. Komen…and BreastCancer.org.
Also helpful: Other research suggests that timely physical therapy reduces the odds of developing lymphedema. For more on that, read “Help for Lymphedema: Preventing Arm Swelling After Breast Cancer Surgery.”
Additional information on lymphedema is available from the National Lymphedema Network. You also can download a PDF from the American Cancer Society called “Lymphedema: What Every Woman With Breast Cancer Should Know.”