Lympho What?

How to minimise this troublesome complication

Lymphoedema is hard to pronounce and harder to spell. But its meaning is simple enough - and it is a very real problem for some people with cancer. Oedema simply means swelling, and lymphoedema is a swelling caused by a failure of lymph fluid drainage. Some people develop this sort of swelling because of infections in the skin and tissues, or because of an inherited problem with the lymphatic system itself. But in the UK the main cause is cancer or its treatment.

The lymphatic system is made up of tubes called lymph vessels and glands called lymph nodes. They provide a one-way drainage system through which fluid is taken away from the tissues and passed back into the bloodstream. Lymph is the name of this colourless fluid, which carries proteins, microbes and unwanted particles that are filtered through the lymph nodes on the way to the bloodstream.Groups of lymph nodes are found in the neck, armpits and groin.

Any tumour or treatment in an area of nodes can obstruct lymph flow. For example, breast cancer may lead to lymphoedema of the arm on the same side, while an excision of lymph nodes in the groin because of skin cancer can result in lymphoedema of the leg. The protein-rich swelling that develops in lymphoedema can make the skin dry and thickened and the arm or leg feel heavy and uncomfortable.

Although lymphoedema cannot be cured, much can be done to reduce and control the problems it causes. And specialist clinics now exist in many areas to help patients to manage the condition themselves. For those at risk of developing lymphoedema because of the nature of their cancer or its treatment, there are some precautions you can take to prevent it or minimise its effects:

* Avoid puncturing or grazing the skin on the same side as your treatment. Insect bites, gardening injuries and even nail biting can damage the skin and allow infection in;* If possible, don't offer the affected limb for injections, blood samples or blood pressure checks;
* Avoid keeping the limb in one position, such as carrying a bag or cramped in the back of a car;
* Take gentle, regular exercise, but avoid excessive or strenuous exertion.

The first signs of lymphoedema may be a slight and soft swelling over part of the body - usually an arm or leg. The swelling may be intermittent and accompanied by sensations of discomfort, tightness or pins and needles. If you suspect lymphoedema seek early medical advice.

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