Managing Treatments

Lymphedema Treatment Goes Beyond Traditional Options

You've already beaten cancer — lymphedema shouldn't be ruining your quality of life.

For some people, defeating cancer is only the first part of the journey back to good health. Lymphedema, a condition that results in the buildup of fluid within body tissues, is a potential side effect of cancer and treatments used to destroy cancer cells, like radiation therapy. Fortunately, lymphedema treatment options continue to evolve.

Lymphedema affects cancer survivors of all types. As many as 49 percent of breast, 20 percent of gynecologic, 16 percent of melanoma, 10 percent of genitourinary, and 6 percent of head and neck cancer survivors will experience lymphedema, according to the Annals of Surgical Oncology. In many cases, the condition develops after radiation therapy or lymph node dissection.

Even though lymphedema can be debilitating, new treatment options, like lymph tissue transplantation, offer hope if you’re suffering from the condition. Your doctor can help you determine whether this type of surgical procedure is right for you, or whether your lymphedema should be managed using more conservative methods.

Lymphedema’s Toll

In most cases, lymphedema causes symptoms in your arms or legs. Your symptoms may be mild to severe, and can include swelling, discomfort, infections, limited range of motion in the affected limb and hardening of the skin.

Symptoms result from damage to or removal of your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes, which are part of your body’s lymphatic system, are small structures that store white blood cells and filter lymph, a clear fluid also containing white blood cells that circulates throughout your body. When lymph nodes are blocked or removed, it’s possible for lymph fluid to back up in certain areas of your body, like your legs.

Lymphedema can occur months or years after you’ve completed your cancer treatment. And some cancer survivors could be more likely to develop this problem compared to others — according to NPR, people who received radiation treatment for their cancers are 40 percent more at risk for developing lymphedema.

Lymphedema Treatment Choices Are Expanding

For years, the mainstays of treatment for lymphedema have been conservative, or nonsurgical, management of the condition. Known as complex decongestive therapy, certified lymphedema therapists help manage your symptoms using certain exercises, compression bandages and skin care regimens tailored to your personal needs. A certain type of massage therapy, called manual lymphatic drainage, is also used to help lower the amount of backed-up fluid in affected tissues as much as possible.

But within the past two decades, doctors have pioneered efforts to provide lasting symptom management for lymphedema using surgical techniques. Transplanting healthy lymph tissue has been shown to be beneficial for many people, helping them live a symptom-free life.

One procedure, known as vascularized lymph node transfer (VLNT), takes healthy lymph tissue from one area of your body and transplants it into areas affected by lymphedema. Once transplanted, the healthy tissue helps excess fluid drain from the affected area, controlling symptoms and allowing normal function of the limb. UVA doctors offer these types of transplants to help restore good health.

While lymphedema can be a debilitating condition, there is hope for living symptom-free with treatment using innovative surgical techniques, like VLNT. Although lymph tissue transplant isn’t for everyone, your doctor may recommend this treatment option for managing your lymphedema. Your doctor can help you determine whether this type of procedure would benefit you based on your personal medical history and unique symptoms of lymphedema.

The right doctor will listen to your health concerns and take all the steps necessary to get you feeling your best.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN