OCTOBER IS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH
Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent malignancies affecting women worldwide, with millions of new cases diagnosed yearly. While significant advancements in screening, early detection, and treatment have improved survival rates, breast cancer treatments can sometimes lead to persistent side effects. Lymphedema, a chronic condition characterized by fluid retention and swelling in the limbs, is one such complication that commonly affects breast cancer survivors. During Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I want to highlight the link between breast cancer and lymphedema, its risk factors, prevention strategies, and early recognition and management.
POST-BREAST CANCER RISK FACTOR FOR LYMPHEDEMA
Lymphedema is a well-recognized risk following breast cancer treatment, mainly when surgical interventions involve axillary lymph node dissection or when radiation therapy is administered to the axillary region. Studies suggest that the risk of lymphedema can range from 5% to 40% among breast cancer survivors, depending on various factors such as the extent of surgery and radiation, obesity, and comorbidities. Let’s navigate some of the post-breast cancer risk factors.
LYMPH NODES REMOVED:
The number of lymph nodes removed during surgery is one of the primary predictors of developing lymphedema. Research indicates that the risk increases as more nodes are removed, with those who undergo complete axillary lymph node dissection at a higher risk than sentinel lymph node biopsy. Additionally, radiation therapy targeting the axillary region can further compromise the lymphatic system, exacerbating the risk of lymphedema.
Obesity is another significant risk factor. Excess body weight increases the mechanical pressure on the lymphatic vessels, impeding the flow of lymphatic fluid and potentially leading to its accumulation. The adipose tissue can also produce inflammatory molecules contributing to lymphatic dysfunction. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is crucial in reducing the risk and managing lymphedema.
OLDER AGE AND A HISTORY OF CELLULITIS:
Older age and a history of cellulitis or infection in the affected arm have been associated with higher lymphedema risk. Infection can cause further damage to the lymphatic vessels, impairing their ability to drain fluid from the affected area adequately. Therefore, it’s essential to minimize the risk of infection by practicing proper skincare, avoiding injury to the affected arm, and promptly treating any signs of infection.
GUIDANCE FOR RISK FACTORS:
Highlighting these risk factors provides guidance; they do not determine if an individual will develop lymphedema. Some breast cancer survivors may experience lymphedema despite having no known risk factors, while others with multiple risk factors may never develop the condition. Research is ongoing to identify additional predisposing factors and refine risk assessment tools.
You can take precautions to reduce the risk of lymphedema, but there is no foolproof method to prevent it. First, avoid procedures such as blood pressure measurements, blood draws, and injections in the affected arm. Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in regular exercise will also be beneficial. Practicing proper skin care can also minimize the chances of developing lymphedema. Moreover, patients must follow a gradual exercise program prescribed by their healthcare provider to strengthen the affected arm without putting excessive strain on the lymphatic system.
EARLY RECOGNITION AND MANAGEMENT
Awareness is key when it comes to preventing and managing lymphedema. Breast cancer survivors should be vigilant in monitoring for signs and symptoms such as swelling, heaviness, discomfort, tightness, or decreased range of motion in the affected arm. Do not ignore or dismiss these indicators, as early detection can enhance treatment effectiveness and prevent progression to more severe stages of lymphedema. Seeking prompt medical attention allows for implementing tailored management strategies such as Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT), which combines manual lymph drainage, compression therapy, exercise, and skincare.
PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT AND SUPPORT
Living with breast cancer and lymphedema can affect a person’s mental health. The physical changes caused by lymphedema may lead to body image concerns, self-esteem issues, and emotional distress. Support groups, counseling, and online communities can be vital in providing psychological support and connecting individuals facing similar challenges. Sharing experiences and learning coping mechanisms from others who have effectively managed lymphedema can be immensely empowering and uplifting.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH AND ADVOCACY
While advancements in breast cancer treatment have continued to improve survival rates, more research is needed to understand better the risk factors, prevention strategies, and management protocols for lymphedema. Funding and support for research initiatives and advocacy efforts to raise awareness are vital. By actively supporting organizations dedicated to breast cancer research and lymphedema management, we can contribute to developing innovative treatments, improved rehabilitation programs, and enhanced quality of life for breast cancer survivors. A really good place to start is LE&RN.
TAKING PROACTIVE MEASURES TO LIMIT THE RISK OF LYMPHEDEMA
Breast cancer survivors face a potential long-term risk of lymphedema, which can significantly impact their quality of life. Understanding the risk factors associated with lymphedema following breast cancer treatment can help healthcare professionals and individuals take proactive measures to minimize the chances of its occurrence and identify symptoms early. By promoting awareness, supporting research efforts, and providing comprehensive care, we can enhance breast cancer survivors’ well-being and long-term outcomes, enabling them to live fulfilling lives.
Disclaimer – This blog is for general information purposes only. Furthermore, the information contained in this blog is not a substitute for medical advice – always consult a licensed healthcare professional for advice on your specific condition.