Updated: Apr 8, 2020
There is so much confusing information on this subject. I've been battling lymphedema in my breast, and worry everyday about it starting in my arm. What exactly is lymphedema, how does it occur, who's at risk, what things raise my chance of this occurring?
I'm not sure I'd even heard of lymphedema before breast cancer. Then suddenly I was being told to not have blood pressure or blood taken from arm on breast cancer side. Wear a compression sleeve when flying. Avoid cuts and bruises on that side. And the worst...no more hot tubs!! What??!! How could I never sit in a hot tub again? To never enjoy a sunrise with coffee, or unwind after a long day with wine. These are my favourite hot tub events. What about the health benefits of hot tubs; reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, minimizing pain from arthritis and tired muscles? Those benefits have to out weight the risks, or so I had hoped. This is what started my investigation of the facts.
First off, what even is lymphedema? Research explained that lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is unable to circulate lymph through the vessels. Chemotherapy and radiation can damage lymph nodes and vessels. Having sentinel biopsy or node disection cuts off the vessels and leaves the lymph with nowhere to go. This can cause a build up of lymph fluid, which in turn creates the dreaded swelling, lymphedema. But, are we all at risk? Who's more at risk? I needed to find out more.
I started with my oncologist. He wasn't overly informative on this subject. He just reassured me that lymphedema usually presents itself shortly after surgery, which was about a year before. That wasn't enough info for me at all.
Next I went to my friend Google. Well, everyone on there seems to have a different opinion on the subject. But I discovered that most experts agreed that the more lymph nodes removed, the higher the lymphedema risk. Couldn't find any factual evidence on avoiding blood pressure and blood work taken from breast cancer side, although most info did advise to keep it to the untreated arm if and when possible. As for info on whether or not risk percentages went down with time, that was definitely mixed. 50% agreed with what my oncologist had said, 50% say risk factors remain the same forever.....uggh.
So on I went to my boob whisperer. My Boobapist as I call her, more commonly called a Physiotherapist, specializes in breast care and lymph drainage. Now, let me stop here for a moment. I highly suggest everyone who has breast cancer to seek out a physiotherapist who specialized in this area. Not one of my medical team suggested this. I only discovered this info from fellow cancer survivors. Had I know sooner, and started therapy shortly after surgery, I wouldn't have experienced lymphedema and radiation damage as severely as I did. This would be my greatest piece of advice to new cancer fighters. Anyways.. her advice, which, for myself, I 100% trust, is listen to your body, and avoid as many risk factors as possible because there is no rhyme or reason for who gets lymphedema. We can take all the time, avoid all the risks, and still get it. As for hot tubs??.. she suggests keeping the temperature low, after a quick soak sit up higher in tub so that breast, underarm and arm can mostly stay out of water and to limit the time spent in the heat. Things I can live with!!