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How to Live with Lymphedema

Pink breast cancer ribbon.
One aspect of breast cancer that often goes under the radar is lymphedema – which can happen when breast cancer surgery includes removal of lymph nodes, or through other breast cancer treatment like radiation. We asked Sabrina Korentager, RN, clinical nurse coordinator with The University of Kansas Cancer Center, to explain the condition, its risk factors and current treatment options.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid accumulates in a specific area of your body. It usually occurs as a result of cancer treatment – typically breast cancer. It can also occur after certain injuries to the lymphatic system or as a congenital condition.

Is lymphedema curable?

We used to think that all lymphedema was irreversible. But we have now found that's not always the case. Early lymphedema, sometimes referred to as subclinical lymphedema, can be found with special tests, early assessment and monitoring. It may also be reversible with certain treatments and practices that reduce the chance of risk.

How can I reduce my risk of developing lymphedema?

Research shows that the type of recommendations given for reducing the risk of lymphedema can vary from person to person. Many of the newer guidelines are far less restrictive than previous ones, which leads to a better quality of life. Many people with a low risk of developing the condition can follow a few risk-reducing recommendations. Even those people with a higher risk can often continue to participate in enjoyable activities by following mild recommendations.

What type of recommendations?

Early treatment can include a variety of options that you can do yourself, such as yoga, stretching and self-massage. A more advanced plan might involve outpatient occupational or physical therapy.

Are there new options if my lymphedema is irreversible?

If your lymphedema is less likely to be reversible, new options include surgery. These procedures have shown early promise for managing the symptoms and chronic infections that may be experienced in the advanced stages of the condition.

If you have questions or would like more information about Turning Point programs for people living with the lymphedema, call 913-574-0900.

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