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Lymphedema is a swelling caused by a buildup of fluid (lymph) in the soft tissues of the limbs. It rarely occurs in other parts of the body (head, trunk). This buildup often occurs after surgical removal of lymph nodes or radiotherapy to lymph nodes (because of blockage of the lymphatic system) and sometimes after chemotherapy.

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Lymphedema is a chronic problem causing distress, pain, and loss of function, anxiety, and daily reminder of a persistent cancer problem. It may develop soon after surgery or radiotherapy or months or years post therapy. There are fewer cases since newer treatment such as sentinal node biopsies are used rather than axillary lymph node dissection. New advanced radiotherapy treatment planning has improved, minimizing the extent of radiotherapy. Lymphedema occurs often after infections and sometimes may occur without an identified cause. In rare cases, lymphedema may be caused by a genetic abnormality (mutation) and family members may be affected. Gaps in our understanding of lymphedema have limited treatment, but recent advances in genetic studies and imaging - x-rays, scans, ultrasound, (x-rays dye study of the lymphatic system) - as well as insights gained from physiologic studies, hold promise of a more definitive therapy. The lymphatic vessels become incompetent and no longer drain lymph fluid from the extremities, resulting in a swollen limb. It occurs after a tight constriction of an affected limb, such as use of a blood pressure cuff, tight clothing or jewelry, and can trigger a build up of tissue lymph fluid from damaged tiny lymphatic vessels.
A major cause can be an infection in the limb at risk due to even a minor cut or bruise. Other causes include strenuous exercise or heavy lifting, excessive limb heat or vigorous massage resulting in excessive limb fluid buildup. Lymphedema is usually a chronic problem but it may be permanent. Where cancer is involved, lymphedema is most often seen after breast surgery and/or radiotherapy (15-30% of women may develop lymphedema after breast cancer treatment). However it may occur in upper or lower extremities (arms or legs) in connection with almost any other malignancy (like malignant melanoma, ovarian, cervical, testicular, or prostate cancer and others). In lymphedema related to cancer treatment, it is surgical lymph-node dissection and radiotherapy that causes damage to the lymphatic system. Chronic lymphedema may result in minor swelling and discomfort. Occasionally it leads to a grave disability and disfigurement. Survivors who have had surgery and/or radiation therapy for cancer might be at risk of lymphedema. Note: The affected limb is more prone to infections (cellulitis). Infection may begin suddenly and progress rapidly. Oral antibiotics can usually cure such infection, but in severe cases, hospitalization for IV antibiotics might be necessary.
The following precautions will help survivors to avoid infections and support their lymphedema program:1 Avoid limb injuries, especially cuts, bruises. and animal scratches. Keep extremities dry and clean Keep skin lubricated with moisturizing creams or oils to prevent chaffing of skin such as Eucerin cream Protect skin from excessive sunlight (use sun screens and insect repellents) Protect your fingers. For example, wear gloves to avoid injury especially when gardening or doing manual work Avoid cutting your cuticles and use extra care when cutting your nails. Use an electric razor rather than a blade for shaving the affected limb to avoid nicks and skin irritation Avoid blood draws and injections of the affected limb if possible See your physician if limb is red, or if rash, swelling, pain, or fever occur Avoid the use of blood pressure cuffs on the affected limb Take care of cuts or injuries to the limbs; see your physicians if you have any questions. Avoid wearing jewelry on affected arm or leg Avoid heavy lifting.

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