If you’re at risk of developing secondary lymphoedema, you can take measures to help prevent it. If you’ve had, or are going to have cancer surgery, ask your doctor whether your particular procedure will involve your lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Ask if your radiation treatment will be aimed at any of your lymph nodes, so you’ll be aware of the possible risks.
To reduce your risk of lymphoedema, try to:
Protect your arm or leg. Avoid any injury to your affected limb. Cuts, scrapes and burns can all invite infection, which can result in lymphoedema. Protect yourself from sharp objects. For example, shave with an electric razor, wear gloves when you garden or cook, and use a thimble when you sew. If possible, avoid medical procedures, such as vaccinations and the drawing of blood on your affected limb. In addition, blood pressure should not be taken on the affected arm (in the case of arm/hand lymphoedema.)
Rest your arm or leg while recovering. After cancer treatment, avoid heavy activity with that limb. Early exercise and stretching are encouraged, but avoid strenuous activity until you’ve recovered from surgery or radiation.
Avoid heat on your arm or leg. Don’t apply heat, such as with a heating pad, to your affected limb.
Elevate your arm or leg. When you get a chance, elevate your affected limb above the level of your heart, if possible.
Avoid tight clothing. Avoid anything that could constrict your arm or leg, such as tightfitting clothing and, in the case of your arm, blood pressure cuffs. Ask that your blood pressure be taken on your other arm. Women should wear well-fitted bras; bra straps should not be too tight. Avoid underwire styles, and wear pads under the bra straps if necessary. Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes. Avoid tight hosiery and socks. Wear watches or jewelry loosely, if at all, on the affected arm
Avoid repetitive movements of the affected arm, such as scrubbing, pushing or pulling. Do not carry a purse or bag on the affected shoulder.
Keep your arm or leg clean. Make skin care and nail care high priorities. Inspect the skin on your arm or leg every day, keeping watch for changes or breaks in your skin that could lead to infection. Apply lotion to keep your skin moisturised. When applying lotion to your feet, do so to the surrounding skin, but not in between your toes. Do not go outdoors barefoot.
Maintain good nutrition. It is an important part of your overall health care. Here are some guidelines:
- Reduce foods high in salt and fat.
- Include fruits and vegetables in your daily meal plan.
- Include at least two to four servings of fruits and three to five servings of vegetables in your daily meal plan.
- Eat a variety of foods to get all the nutrients you need.
- Use package label information to help you to make the best selections for a healthy lifestyle.
- Eat foods high in fibre such as whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Maintain your ideal body weight. A registered dietician or your health-care provider can help calculate your ideal body weight.
- Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation, and always increase your water uptake after alcohol consumption to replenish water lost as a result of the dehydrating effect of alcohol.
- Drink tea and coffee in moderation, as they also result in water loss. Herbal teas/ rooibos) are recommended rather than caffeinated teas.
- In general cut down on any beverages that have caffeine in them.
WHAT CAN I DO IF I ALREADY HAVE LYMPHOEDEMA?
To help decrease the risk of further swelling, continue following the recommendations for preventing lymphoedema. In addition:
- Avoid extreme temperature changes. Do not use hot tubs, whirlpools, saunas or steam baths. Use warm, rather than very hot, water when bathing or washing dishes.
- Always wear sun protection (at least SPF 15) when going outdoors.
- When traveling by air, ask your health care provider if you should wear a compression sleeve on your affected arm or a stocking on your affected leg to minimize swelling. For long flights, additional bandages may be needed. Talk to your health care provider before travelling.
- Continue to see your health care provider for frequent follow-up visits, as recommended.
OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE
Lymphoedema cannot be cured. However, with proper care and treatment, the affected limb can usually be restored to a manageable size and shape. In addition, lymphedema can be managed and controlled so that it does not progress further.
If left untreated, lymphoedema can lead to increased swelling and a hardening of the tissue, resulting in decreased function and mobility in the affected limb. It can also lead to chronic infections and other illnesses.
It is important to receive treatment promptly if you recognize the symptoms of lymphedema.