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Understanding Lymphedema: May 26, 2011

Lymphedema is extreme swelling of an arm or leg, that often occurs after surgery in many cases for breast cancer. Once the lymph nodes are removed it leaves lymphatic fluid with nowhere to go.

“You end up breaking the lymphatic channels, they don’t have a way of getting back to the heart,” says Dr. Frank Rodriguez. “When that happens it pools up and you can have a lot of swelling of the hand, or of the arm.”

Patient’s limbs can swell up to 2 or 3 times their normal size. There’s no cure for lymphedema, people are left managing their symptoms. Starting with understanding the condition.

Lymphedema therapist Jackie Speas teaches patients how to ease the constant swelling.

“We’ll teach them manual lymph drainage which is a massage technique to redirect the fluid to parts of the body that do not have edema,” she says. “Then we’ll also do compressive wrapping.”

It’s important to understand the condition because it can lead to bigger health consequences.

“You can have all sorts of problems with infection and you really, really want to keep it under control because you don’t want to get into one of these higher-level problems.”

More than a lifestyle issue, managing lymphedema is accepting it is a lifelong process.