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Treating Lymphedema

Therapy & resources for a possible side effect from breast cancer treatments.

For many breast cancer patients getting well is a journey. The healing process takes time due to recovery from treatment and necessary surgeries. For some breast cancer patients who have undergone radiation or surgery on lymph nodes the journey to wellness can be prolonged by a common and chronic condition called lymphedema.

Lymphedema is the swelling of body parts, most often an extremity, caused by the abnormal accumulation of lymph, a protein rich fluid that circulates in the lymphatic system. Lymphedema can happen to any cancer patient in which one or more lymph nodes are removed or treated with radiation. In breast cancer patients, lymphedema most often occurs in the upper extremities, breast/chest and upper trunk. “Sometimes after a surgery or radiation treatment the fluid in the lymphatic system becomes disrupted and accumulates in areas of the body,” says Tammy Stockero, RN and Breast Care Navigator at Sansum Clinic. “While we aren’t totally sure why this happens, the risk for developing lymphedema after breast cancer treatments can depend, in part, on the type of procedure you’ve had and how many lymph nodes were involved. And unfortunately, lymphedema becomes a lifelong risk for breast cancer patients with affected lymph nodes.”

“It’s important to notify your medical providers immediately if you are experiencing symptoms of lymphedema. The sooner a patient gets an evaluation the sooner we can prepare a treatment plan before a hardening of the underlying tissue develops,” says Maureen Groves, PTA, MLD/CDT, Lymphedema Therapist with Sansum Clinic.

“You may feel a full sensation in the affected limb, your skin may feel tight, you may have decreased flexibility and you may notice clothing or jewelry not fitting on one particular area of the body.” Luckily, for patients experiencing lymphedema there are effective treatments available to help reduce swelling, and lessen the condition. Barbara McCoy-Lawson, PT and Lymphedema Therapist with Sansum Clinic works with lymphedema patients to help prescribe the best treatments to suit their individual needs. “Lymphedema therapy for breast cancer, like all lymphedema treatments, includes some or all of the four steps of decongestive therapy: skin care, manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy/garments and remedial exercises,” she shared. McCoy-Lawson recommends getting evaluated by a certified lymphedema therapist (CLT) to determine the right treatment plan, which may include manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). MLD is a type of very directed, gentle touch used to move excess lymphatic fluid to areas where it can drain better.

“Certified lymphedema therapists have gone through intensive training to learn how to do MLD correctly and we are very clear to people that it is not standard massage,” says Groves. “Patients can be taught a self-administered form of simple MLD, but it is vital that the patient be guided through direct instruction given by the therapist.” MLD is often used in conjunction with compression bandages/garments and lymphatic exercises while wearing those garments. Since the skin is stretched by lymphedema your therapist will also closely monitor it to avoid injury and infection and will give recommendations for the best ways to care for and moisturize the area.

“With the manual lymphatic therapy and assigned home exercises, there was a marked improvement of my symptoms within a few short weeks,” Sansum Clinic patient Gloria Clements shared. “Sara Rodriguez, my CLT, also provided me additional information relative to healthcare issues that I found to be extremely helpful. Sara and the lymphedema therapy has been a godsend to me.”

While lymphedema is a chronic, lifelong condition there are resources available to control and relieve symptoms. Speaking with your healthcare provider is the first step. If you are suffering from lymphedema, or think you could be at risk, Sansum Clinic offers lymphedema patients a wide range of services in our community, including:

  • Free Lymphedema Education Classes. The classes teach patients techniques for reducing their risk of developing lymphedema and offers strategies for managing the chronic condition if one has already developed it. Visit http://www.sansumclinic.org/Classes to sign up for the next class.
  • Lymphedema Screenings. 50%-75% of patients who come in for the screening do in fact have lymphedema, and the screening can help get patients into treatment right away.
  • Free compression garments, bandages and lymphedema therapy services. These services are provided free of charge for oncology patients on limited or fixed incomes in our community.
  • Local Certified Lymphedema Therapists. CLT’s are located in Santa Barbara/Goleta, Lompoc and Ventura/Oxnard.

For more information regarding the lymphedema services and screenings or to book an appointment please contact Sansum Clinic at (805) 681-7704.

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Providing innovative healthcare services in Santa Barbara County for more than 90 years.
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