For some people fighting cancer, radiation and surgery are only part of the battle. Treatment can trigger a condition known as lymphedema, or chronic swelling of a part of the body due to an impaired lymphatic system—especially in those diagnosed with cancer of the breast, pelvic area, lymph nodes, skin, or head and neck. The lymphatic system is a part of the immune system that transports waste from the body’s tissues through a fluid called lymph. If parts of the system become blocked or damaged, lymph can build up, causing debilitating swelling and soft-tissue changes, says Heather MacDanel, Augusta Health Lymphedema Clinic occupational and certified lymphedema therapist.
Augusta’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders educates cancer patients about the signs and symptoms of lymphedema before it develops for the best prognosis. For those experiencing lymphedema, MacDanel uses complete decongestive therapy, the gold standard for treatment. Decongestive therapy has four components: manual lymph drainage (MLD), compression, skin care and exercise. MLD involves light stretching of the skin to create detours for the built-up lymph. The effects only last for 24–48 hours, so MacDanel teaches patients and their caregivers to perform MLD on their own. Compression helps keep swelling under control, so patients can be fitted for compression garments at the clinic.
Exercise is also therapeutic for cancer recovery. Amanda Keyser, a physical therapist at Augusta Health, works with women in the Strength After Breast Cancer program, a physical therapy regimen that helps women recover from treatment and reduce their risk of lymphedema. Keyser says the program was developed based on research from the University of Pennsylvania. “Women who underwent treatment were found to have a fear of returning to normal activity—especially using the arm of the affected side—so the program is meant to show women that it’s OK and actually beneficial to exercise and work on range of motion to restore function and decrease their risk of developing lymphedema,” she says.
Both MacDanel and Keyser say their goal is to help patients achieve as much independent management of their condition as possible.
“Our treatment program is individually based on each patient’s needs,” Keyser says. The Lymphedema Clinic and Strength After Breast Cancer program require referrals.
Ask your provider for a referral to the Lymphedema Clinic or the Strength After Breast Cancer program. Learn more at augustahealth.com/cancer-center/rehab-medical-fitness.