Breast Cancer and Lymphedema
What’s lymphedema? That’s the question I most commonly get when I tell people that I’m a Lymphedema Therapist. After seeing their perplexed expressions, I explain what lymphedema is, then I explain why I’m so passionate about helping breast cancer survivors manage their lymphedema.
Lymphedema is an abnormal swelling and accumulation of fluid that can develop in the arm, hand, breast, or torso as a side effect of breast cancer surgery and/or radiation treatment. Some women can develop lymphedema months or even years following their surgeries.
Lymph is a thin, clear fluid that circulates throughout the body to remove waste, bacteria, and other substances from tissues. Lymphedema occurs when too much lymph accumulates in one area of the body. When people are treated for breast cancer, the treatment often damages their lymphatic system, and it starts to become damaged, and does not filter waste efficiently. When cancer patients undergo mastectomies, lymph nodes are commonly removed. Likewise, radiation can damage a healthy lymphatic system. Breast cancer survivors often see lymphedema develop in the arm and hand, since many of our lymph nodes are located in the armpit area. However, sometimes I see it develop in the breast, underarm, chest, trunk, and/or back.
Lymphedema usually develops gradually, but you can feel unusual sensations – like tingling or numbness, that comes and goes before any visible swelling happens. Other early signs of lymphedema are feeling of fullness, tightness, and less flexibility in the hand, arm, chest, and breast. Lymphedema has no cure but can be managed. Early treatment is important, so you should tell your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms after cancer treatment.
If you already have lymphedema, but do not remember being told about it during your breast cancer treatment, you are not alone. As a lymphedema therapist, I hear clients say quite often that they don’t remember the doctor mentioning lymphedema as a possible side effect. I’ve lost close family members to breast cancer, so I can say from personal experience that the time right after hearing that you have the C word is a blur. After hearing you have cancer, you start considering and planning treatment. You feel anxious and overwhelmed, and it may be hard to hear everything being said. I remember seeing the doctor’s mouth moving, but not hearing him. I could only hear my internal conversations, my bargaining with God. If lymphedema is mentioned, you may not remember it, or you first want to focus on getting well and surviving. Accepting the fact that you have cancer, undergoing the necessary treatments, can feel unsurmountable at times. There is a lot of emotional and physical pain that goes along with it. Then, after finishing all that, hearing that you now have lymphedema, may seem like another insult to your body… one that you are not prepared for. “Here we go again”, you may think. The good news is that lymphedema can be managed, and you can lead a rewarding, normal life. Finding a qualified and compassionate lymphedema therapist is your first step towards proper management of your lymphedema. Your treatment with your lymphedema therapist will include manual lymph drainage (MLD), compression and/or bandaging, exercise and skin care…and it’s definitely possible to lead the normal life you deserve.
Personally, it’s very rewarding to see clients’ feel better, and gain confidence as we get their swelling down. When they first come in, they seem worn, tired, and in a lot of pain. The pain they feel is not always in their limbs, but in their hearts and minds. I understand the battles they’ve fought, and I love seeing the difference we’ve made together. It’s not really about lymphedema. It’s not about the boring definition of lymphedema. It’s about feeling and living well. For one memorable client of mine, it was about being able to wear her wedding ring for the first time in years. It’s about having dignity and being honored as a human being.
Helping breast cancer survivors and lymphedema warriors is personal to me. I’ve loved and lost people to the disease, and now I get the chance to make a difference in the lives of other cancer survivors. I love what I do.
Healing Kneads Massage
At Healing Kneads Massage our therapists have received training from the Academy of Lymphatic Studies (ACOLS), in both MLD and Lymphedema Management. We have the skills to provide expert care, and the compassion to provide the care in a safe, compassionate way. We offer free phone consults as well, to answer any questions you may have about your treatment or our credentials.
Want to learn more about how massage therapy can help with lymphedema treatment?
We can’t wait to meet you and help you recover!
Laura is the founder of Healing Kneads. She graduated from Florida College of Natural Health in 2012 and is passionate about helping people find rejuvenation and renewal amidst the stresses of life, and relief from the pains that show up in their bodies because of that stress. She believes in the mind-body connection and believes every body has the potential for wellness and balance. Laura has helped clients with various issues, including neck and jaw pain, headaches, Lipedema, and Lymphedema.
She is licensed by the Florida Department of Health, and holds certifications in Lymphatic Drainage, Myofascial Release, Sports Massage, cupping, and neuromuscular massage.