October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. With many patients recovering from breast cancer lymphedema is often a major concern. However, there is a surprising lack of education about lymphedema, its causes, risk factors, and treatment options.
Lymphedema Risk Factors
Patients want to know their risk of lymphedema, if they will get it, and what they can do about it. We understand some risk factors, supported by the literature:
- Infection after surgery
- Taxane chemotherapy (taxol, taxotere)
- Family history of swelling,
- Having an axillary lymph node dissection more so than sentinel lymph node biopsy
- Complaints of fullness / heaviness / achiness / numbness or tingling in the affected arm/breast
- Radiation treatment especially nodal irradiation (above the collarbone and under the armpit).
We understand that lymphedema is a lifelong risk, although 90% of people will be diagnosed within a year of surgery and radiation, and 95% will be diagnosed within 3 years after surgery and radiation.
Reducing Your Risk of Lymphedema
We understand that there are many things that patients can do to reduce their risk of lymphedema. For example, a group of 120 women who had an axillary lymph node dissection were randomized either into a ‘lymphedema education’ or ‘lymphedema education plus physical therapy’ group. 25% of the women who were in the education group and 7% in the education + PT group were diagnosed with lymphedema, showing the huge positive impact that PT & lymphedema therapy can have on lymphedema diagnosis.
The kicker is – only 25% of breast cancer patients are educated about lymphedema risk prior to surgery. In addition, 20% believe that lymphedema does not require treatment. And 17% understood that we do not have a cure for lymphedema.
Certified Lymphedema Therapist
So if you or anyone you know has had or will have surgery for breast cancer, tell them to seek out a certified lymphedema therapist to learn about lymphedema and how to reduce their risk. We do not have a cure for this disease yet, so prevention and early treatment are our best options.