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Buddy Check 7: Managing lymphedema after breast cancer treatment

Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 7:49 AM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Your body’s lymphatic system is an important network made up of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins and other waste.

“The lymphatic system moves the fluid to lymph nodes and the lymph nodes work on cleaning that product out and re-circulating that fluid back to the heart,” explained Beth Friske, an occupational therapist at Marshfield Clinic.

But for 15-20% of patients, that fluid can be backed up in arms and legs. It’s a condition called lymphedema.

“When a patient has breast cancer, they often have lymph nodes removed or they’ll have surgery or radiation that causes scar tissue that interferes with that flow of fluid, causing that backup into the extremity,” Friske said.

Shirley Chilsen, Holly Chilsen’s mom, experienced that after a breast cancer diagnosis 17 years ago. She got lymphedema following surgery to remove the cancerous tumors.

“And then they also knew they had to remove some lymph nodes,” Shirley said.

Friske is certified in lymphedema treatment. She said perhaps the biggest sign of lymphedema is swelling.

“When it becomes more chronic, they actually can have more symptoms of infection. They can have skin changes, where the skin starts to get hard and fibrotic, and that’s in the more advanced stages,” explained Friske.

That can lead to a tissue infection called cellulitis, something Shirley has gotten at least a few times.

“My arm swells up, it’s beat red and it’s burning. It’s hot, because there’s a fever in your arm. Like the worst flu you can imagine, it’s terrible,” Shirley said.

While there is no cure for lymphedema, Friske said there are ways to manage it and reduce the built-up fluid.

“Intervention that can include manual lymphatic drainage techniques, use of compression garments to keep swelling out. There’s pneumatic pumps and also exercise,” Friske explained. “Our goal is to teach the patient how to take good care of it at home and prevent complications.”

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