RALEIGH, N.C. — Breast cancer patients get a lot of information about surgery and treatments, but many say they have never heard about a side effect called lymphedema until they got it.
Seven years ago, Janet Freeman had a mastectomy and finished her breast cancer treatments. She did not know about a possible side effect of the surgery and treatments called lymphedema until she heard about it at a special conference.
"I learned about what the symptoms are, went home, compared my elbows and sure enough my right one looked a little bit different," she said.
Freeman's right arm was slowly swelling. The lymphatic system filters waste products from the blood. Lymphedema occurs when the lymph nodes and vessels in the system are removed during breast cancer surgery or damaged by radiation.
With removed or damaged nodes and vessels, fluids can back up, causing swelling in an arm or leg.
Officials said a light massage helps the lymph fluid drain. Treatment helps avoid painful infections. At night, patients often wear a bandage wrap and a compression sleeve during the day.
"It really does take everyday attention, but it's minimally intrusive to what I do," Freeman said.
Freeman also knows to avoid hot baths, showers or heating pads. Officials suggest not carrying heavy objects or wear a watch or jewelry on the affected arm. Alcohol and smoking can make the problem worse. Any needle injection, cut or scratch on the arm or leg can lead to an infection.
New breast cancer procedures make lymphedema less likely. It usually develops within two years after surgery, but patients are at risk of lymphedema for the rest of their lives.
holds free lymphedema prevention and management classes on the second Tuesday of every month at 2418 Blue Ridge Road, Suite 100, in Raleigh.
For more information call (919) 782-5954.