For the better part of a year, Haley underwent breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy before she received the all-clear. The sense of relief and feeling of strength was truly inspirational yet surreal. To celebrate her victory, Haley and her family traveled to Hawaii. While there, Haley got a little too much sun, and that’s when things got weird.

She started noticing swelling in her left arm. There was no pain, so she assumed it would go away. When she got back home, the swelling continued. She couldn’t relieve the swelling, so she visited her doctor. That’s when she learned she had lymphedema, a condition that can occur following cancer therapies. Cancer therapies can include surgical interventions, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of therapies. Her doctor referred her to see a physical therapist who specializes in lymphedema therapy. 

Molly Nelson, PT, CLT, is one of only a few physical therapists in Central Oregon specializing in lymphedema therapy, having been trained at the Norton School of Lymphatic Therapy. Lymphedema is caused by fluid buildup in an area that has damage to the lymph system. Unlike other types of swelling, lymphedema doesn’t come with pain and doesn’t lessen if elevated. It is a chronic condition that comes without a cure. 

Why Does Lymphedema Happen?

While several things can cause lymphedema, in the United States, the most common cause is cancer therapies. Occurring days, weeks, months, and even years after cancer treatment. Lymphedema can be triggered by something as benign as an insect bite to something as serious as trauma. The culprit? A compromised lymphatic system.

According to Molly, some people notice a little bit of swelling at first and think it isn’t a big deal, and then suddenly, their swelling becomes much worse. Most of Molly’s patients find her by way of their referring physician, which is ideal because promptly treating lymphedema helps prevent it from becoming a more serious problem. 

Time is of the Essence When it Comes to Lymphedema.

Like many health conditions, time is an important factor in managing the condition. This is because the type of swelling in lymphedema is more protein-rich, which draws in more fluid, making it harder to get rid of once the swelling begins. If it isn’t treated, the swelling can worsen. Some people with lymphedema have to permanently alter their clothing to accommodate swelling on one side of their body.

“Seeing a patient soon after cancer treatment allows me to take baseline measurements so we can monitor changes in swelling over time, whether it is weeks, months, or years later,” said Molly. 

Molly’s measurements provide a baseline that helps gauge the efficacy of manual lymph draining and decongestive therapy. And while these two treatments don’t sound very pleasant, Molly assures me that the treatment itself is a very relaxing experience. Molly’s touch is light and gentle, and while the goal is to decongest – or move the swelling and fluid away from the compromised lymph- she does so in a pleasant and therapeutic way. 

Treating Lymphedema with Decongestive Therapy

Molly likens lymphedema to a congested highway without any exits. She uses a treatment called decongestive therapy to clear the congestion in an area and pull fluid away from the compromised lymph system. She may see a patient one to five times a week to reverse the swelling.

Decongestive therapy is a two-part process. The first part involves manual lymph drainage. This specialized form of manual therapy moves fluid from the compromised side of the body to the closest, uncompromised side with a high concentration of lymph nodes. The second part involves compression to maintain the effects of the manual lymph drainage. 

Can Lymphedema Be Prevented?

As mentioned, lymphedema can happen to anyone. However, maintaining good skincare and regular exercise after treatment, decreases the chance of it developing. Avoiding saunas, hot tubs, and other extreme hot or cold temperatures is recommended. Eating a low sodium diet can also help lower the risk of lymphedema. Advances in cancer surgeries that remove lymph nodes are helping decrease the risk of developing lymphedema. However, there is no way to eliminate the risk of it developing. 

And Molly’s advice is on par for recognizing the symptoms of lymphedema which include: 

  • Feeling fullness or heaviness in one area of the body (location depends on where cancer treatment occurred)
  • Clothing does not fit correctly or may fit on one side but not the other
  • Difficulty moving a joint or limb
  • Thickening or changes in the skin’s texture

If you or someone you know is preparing for cancer surgery, know the signs and symptoms of lymphedema and do what you can to help decrease the risk of it happening. Look at your body, comparing one side to the other, and learn what is normal for you so you can more easily detect when something isn’t right. And if you do notice any of the symptoms of lymphedema, talk to your healthcare provider right away. You can also visit our office for an evaluation. We will work alongside your provider to ensure you are given the best care possible.