What is lymphedema? Understanding this common cancer treatment side effect

Lymphedema is a common cancer treatment side effect that can cause swelling in a patient’s arm or leg. It may lead to discomfort, pain and infection. It may make it difficult for patients to find clothes that fit. Lymphedema can also lead to skin infections. Fortunately, lymphedema can be treated through massage, exercise, bandaging and, in some cases, surgery. We spoke with plastic surgeons Mark Schaverien, M.D., and Ed Chang, M.D., to learn more. When does lymphedema occur? Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system doesn’t drain properly and fluid builds up. It often results after lymph nodes have been removed or become obstructed. Are certain patients more likely to develop lymphedema? Cancer patients who have lymph nodes removed are at risk for lymphedema. So are patients who receive radiation therapy. Patients who have had both radiation therapy and lymph nodes removed are at an even higher risk of developing lymphedema. Anyone can develop lymphedema, but it’s most common in breast cancer patients who have all or parts of their breast removed, along with lymph nodes. Lymphedema often occurs in patients with uterine, prostate, vulvar, ovarian cancers, lymphoma and melanoma, too. Patients who are overweight are also at increased risk for lymphedema. How is lymphedema diagnosed and treated? First, a doctor or lymphedema therapist will evaluate you and determine if you have lymphedema through a clinical exam. During this exam, they’ll measure the difference in size between limbs. In some cases, they may use scans, like MRIs and CTs, and ultrasounds, or a test called a lymphoscintigraphy in which dye is used to highlight the lymphatic system and illustrate blockages....