Life with Lymphedema: Fatal or Just Frustrating?


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If you’ve recently been diagnosed with lymphedema, you’re probably wondering if the lymphatic disease can cause death.  Here’s a hint:  Disruptive?  Yes.  Deadly?  Not really.

Up to 10 million Americans are currently living with lymphedema.  Lymphedema is classified as a chronic illness, and like most chronic illnesses, can prove fatal if left untreated or mismanaged.  The latter stages of lymphedema can result in several other health-related complications, such as infection, disfigurement, pain, and even disability.  While there is yet to be a definitive cure, lymphedema can be very effectively managed, significantly reducing the possibility of death.  Here’s a heads-up on how to stay on top of the common condition that strikes millions without it becoming life-threatening.  Management is a must for survival, not to mention the key to leading a quality-filled life.

The Link Between Breast Cancer and Lymphedema
Lymphedema is often the unfortunate, permanent side effect of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy, following a breast cancer diagnosis.  During chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, the lymph nodes are either removed or irreparably compromised.  When the lymph nodes are damaged or removed, the lymphatic system, which is an integral part of the immune system, fails to properly drain lymph fluid, causing blockage in the extremities.  This potentially harmful obstruction of fluid buildup leads to painful, debilitating swelling of the tissues and soreness of the skin.  Optimal mobility and leading an active lifestyle become a daily challenge, oftentimes leaving lymphedema sufferers in a perpetual state of despair. While anyone at any age can develop lymphedema, it most often affects those who’ve undergone cancer treatment or whose lymph nodes have been traumatized.  Breast cancer patients usually become lymphedema patients in time.

Ways to Manage Your Lymphedema

A lymphedema diagnosis doesn’t mean an untimely demise is inevitable.  Here are some proven ways to help manage your symptoms, while living a fulfilled life and keep death from knocking at the door:

  • Move more
    Don’t skip your next spin class!  Keep those muscles working, promoting optimal fluid flow and healthy drainage to prevent blockage.
  • Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)
    Performed by a trained specialist, MLD is the process of physically manipulating fluid buildup by “moving” it to lymph nodes where it can be drained properly.
  • Loosen Up
    Avoid tight-fitting clothing, such as leggings and skinny jeans.  Choose comfortable, foot-friendly shoes and stop squeezing into those woefully sky-high stilettos.
  • Visit Your Doctor Regularly
    Be sure to pencil in an appointment with your vascular doctor or lymphedema specialist regularly to assess your symptoms and re-evaluate your treatment trajectory, especially in the disorder’s latter stages.  This is the best way to stay ahead of potential complications down the road.
  • Ditch these Diet No-no’s
    Avoid alcohol, excessive amounts of caffeine, diuretics, added/refined sugars, refined grains, gluten, salt-laden foods, and dairy (other than kefir or plain yogurt).
  • Get Wrapped Up in Compression Wear
    Be sure to get properly fitted for compression garments and wear them as prescribed by your doctor.  Though not the most fashionable, compression wear will help reduce/prevent swelling and alleviate pain.  Plus, you can conceal your compression wear beneath trendy maxi dresses and Bermuda shorts.
  • Steal Some Secrets from the Spa
    Slip inside a soul-soothing sauna to help promote detoxification and relaxation.  Indulge in regular therapeutic massage sessions to encourage fluid flow and salon-inspired body wraps to prevent/reduce swelling.  Before showering, boost blood flow by vigorously brushing your body starting from feet and working upwards towards the heart using a boar-bristled dry brush. Immerse yourself in mineral-infused waters, such as hot springs, water massage, and hot tubs to help promote purification and boost circulation.
  • Spice Things Up
    Sip on dandelion or peppermint tea for its cleansing and detoxification properties, while sprinkling food with ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne pepper.  Drop eucalyptus essential oil into a diffuser or add to a steamy shower and literally breathe in its medicinal powers.

In severe cases, surgery may be recommended to remove extra, stubborn fluid buildup in tissues.

When Lymphedema Turns Lethal
Keep in mind that any acute illness, such as lymphedema, can have dire consequences if ignored.  As untreated lymphedema prolongs, it can develop into lymphangiosarcoma – a lymph-related cancer that limits a patient’s life expectancy from a few months to two years.  Untreated or mismanaged lymphedema can also lead to sepsis, a scary, potentially terminable infection that rapidly spreads throughout the entire body.

As you can see, lymphedema doesn’t have to be a life sentence.  While you must take mindful steps to effectively manage your symptoms and prevent the disorder from disrupting other bodily functions, it’s equally important to stay positive and optimistic throughout your health and wellness journey.  Be sure to check in with your support system, whether it be friends, family, or lymphedema advocacy groups.

To learn more, please contact our Beverly Hills, California office to schedule a consultation with any of our highly trained specialists.