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Daily Life with Lymphedema

For those living with lymphedema, everyday life can present both challenges and dangers. Learning how to avoid injury is vitally important but with just a few precautions, you can learn to protect your affected limb.
PUBLISHED May 16, 2018
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
The lymphatic system is a very important part of the body's immune system. It consists of lymph, lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels. This very intricate system is responsible for removing excess fluid and blood proteins from the body's tissues. The fluid moves from the lymphatic vessels to the lymph nodes where it is filtered and cleansed before being returned to the heart. When it reaches the heart, it is recirculated to the body.

When the normal flow of lymphatic fluid is disrupted, it can back up, resulting in painful swelling known as lymphedema. If left untreated, this backed up fluid can result in infection or cause a hardening of tissues called fibrosis.

Any trauma to the lymph nodes, including injury, surgery, infection and radiation can eventually lead to lymphedema. It can occur in men, women or children. It most commonly appears in the arms or legs, but can occur in the trunk, groin or other areas of the body.

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is often present at birth and is caused by a malformation or malfunction in the lymphatic system often thought to be genetic. Secondary lymphedema is not present at birth and is caused by specific damage to the lymphatic system.

Breast cancer surgery often results in the removal of one or more lymph nodes. Doctors usually check the sentinel lymph node for evidence of cancerous cells. With the removal of one or more lymph nodes, called node dissection, an otherwise healthy immune system can become compromised.

Lymphedema may not appear immediately after surgery. It can occur weeks or even months later. Some signs of the potential development of lymphedema include: a feeling of fullness or pressure, puffiness, redness or inflammation, pitting or a deep aching sensation. If you notice any of these symptoms, consult your doctor.

For those already diagnosed with lymphedema, it's important to be extremely careful with daily activities. Both indoor and outdoor activities can pose potential problems if precautions are not taken.

Normal household chores like cooking and cleaning wouldn't necessarily be something most would consider a health risk, but for those with lymphedema, learning to rethink from a safety perspective is a must. Chores normally done in "autopilot mode" need to be reconsidered. Seemingly harmless activities can put you in a vulnerable condition.

Before beginning any project, if you have compression garments, it would be wise to put them on to help prevent unnecessary swelling.

In the kitchen:

• Wear rubber gloves while washing dishes to protect from extreme hot water and from possible cuts or nicks from knives or broken glasses.
• When using scouring pads, wear rubber gloves to protect against tiny microscopic fibers that could work their way into a skin opening.
• Wear oven mitts when using the oven to protect against burns. Burns are one of the fastest avenues for infection. Silicone oven mitts are thick and offer great protection.
• When heavy lifting is involved, ask for help. A gallon of milk, a heavy pot or bags of groceries can be harmful for arms affected by lymphedema. Learn to make your loads a little lighter.

In the bathroom:

• Lower your water temperature. Extremely hot water can not only injure skin, but can also cause damaging burns. Never enter a hot tub or sauna with temperatures over 104 degrees.
• Use PH-balanced or hypoallergenic soaps and cleansers. It's also important to moisturize skin before donning compression garments.
• Use an electric razor on arms and legs if you suffer from lymphedema. Any nick or cut from a regular razor is very dangerous and could invite an unwanted infection.
• Use natural deodorants instead of products that may contain harsh ingredients.
• When trimming nails, be careful not to cut your skin or clip nails too short.

In the yard:

• Wear gardening gloves while working with plants and soil.
• Be cautious while using lawn mowers and other power tools.
• Wear loose fitting, light weight clothing especially during the hot summer months.
• Wear sunscreen and bug spray to protect against burns and bites.
• Wear long pants to protect your legs from scratches and other injuries. Always watch for swelling.
• Wear comfortable shoes and don't stand for long periods of time especially if you have lymphedema in your lower extremities.

These are just a few of the many ways you can help protect yourself from infection, injury, or secondary infections like cellulitis. By giving a little extra thought to your body's needs, you can enjoy a healthy, happy and safe summer.
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