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Wednesday, October 19, 2005 - Reduce the Risk of Lymphedema After Breast Cancer
Reduce the Risk of Lymphedema After Breast Cancer
VINELAND , NJ (October 19) – A side effect of breast cancer treatment, lymphedema can occur years after the initial cancer treatment. Lymphedema of the arm is a condition in which fluid from the lymph nodes accumulates in the soft tissues of the arm and causes the arm to swell. Lymph nodes, which are also located in the neck and groin, filter out bacteria and other harmful substances from lymphatic fluid. When lymph nodes are removed surgically as part of breast cancer treatment, the body may not be able to handle excess lymph fluid, resulting in lymphedema.

“You can control lymphedema if you begin taking necessary precautions early,” said Dr. Joseph Fanelle, Medical Director of the South Jersey Healthcare Frank and Edith Scarpa Cancer Pavilion. “Any therapies lymphedema patients undergo require a modified lifestyle for success.

“Whether the condition is mild or severe, it is more easily prevented than it is treated,” Fanelle emphasized. “The longer lymphedema persists, the harder it becomes to reduce swelling. “Women need to take proper precautions to lower their risk of developing this condition after breast cancer treatment.”

Lymphedema can affect the whole arm or only a limited portion such as the hand and wrist area or the area surrounding the elbow. The more treatment a patient receives, such as radiation and chemotherapy treatments, the greater her risk of developing lymphedema. Other risk factors for lymphedema include:

  • Obesity: Being overweight limits the blood flow in and around the arm.
  • Alcohol: Drinking causes the blood vessels to expand and leak.
  • Smoking: Smoking narrows the blood vessels, limiting blood flow.
  • Diabetes: Erratic blood sugar levels can cause damage to blood vessels and lead to infection.
  • Any condition that may impair the circulation
  • Previous surgeries around the underarm area
A new technique for removing lymph nodes, called sentinel lymph-node dissection, could lower the risk of developing lymphedema. Instead of removing a large sample of lymph nodes to test for the spread of breast cancer, this technique maps the “sentinel” lymph node—the one most likely to contain cancer cells if the cancer has started to spread beyond the breast. If this node tests negative for cancer, other lymph nodes need not be removed.
  • Lymphedema tends to be brought on by any injury to the skin and/or muscles in the arm that might lead to an infection.
  • Wear sunscreen and bug repellent while outdoors as a sunburn and bug bites can irritate the skin.
  • Use caution when working in the kitchen or garden to avoid burns and cuts by wearing gloves.
  • Keep your skin clean and free of bacteria by using a non-abrasive soap and use a moisturizer to avoid cracking and chaffing.
  • Limit pressure on the affected areas and take breaks when cleaning around the house.
  • Avoid carrying heavy objects or wearing clothing that has tight sleeves or restricts movement.

“While staying active during cancer treatment and recovery is an integral part of the healing process, be careful not to overexert yourself,” says Fanelle. “Talk to your doctor about low-impact exercises which you can engage in safely to stay active.”

“It is especially important to avoid heat because it widens the blood vessels and will cause the area to swell,” Fanelle added. The National Cancer Institute recommends that patients at risk of lymphedema avoid extreme hot and cold temperatures on the area (such as hot showers or ice packs). Refrain from using a heating pad on the affected area.

Consult your physician if you have any of the warning signs of an infection that could lead to lymphedema such as fever, redness, and swelling in the at-risk arm.

To learn more about breast cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment options, call the SJH Frank and Edith Scarpa Regional Cancer Pavilion at (856) 575-4430.

SJH Cancer Services, located in the Frank and Edith Scarpa Regional Cancer Pavilion, have been been affiliated with the Fox Chase Cancer Center since 1995. SJH offers the only cancer program in Cumberland , Salem , or Gloucester counties designated as a Community Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Program by the American College of Surgeons – Commission on Cancer.

The SJH team of board-certified physicians, registered radiation therapists and nationally-certified oncology nurses have provided state-of-the-art radiation therapy, medical oncology and cancer support services to thousands of patients in the region for more than 25 years.

SJH is a nonprofit, integrated health care system, providing access to a continuum of health services. SJH provides hospital services, numerous community health clinics, home health services, and specialty services, which serve the medical and health care needs of Southern New Jersey residents