Learning to Cope with Lymphedema During the Summer Months


Living with lymphedema is challenging and summers can be especially difficult, but with a few helpful tips, it can be an enjoyable time.

My least favorite time of year is here again, summer. Living in Georgia, summers can be quite extreme. Georgia summers are long and last for months. They usually start out hot and get progressively hotter. That’s not a good thing, especially for someone who suffers with lymphedema.

I developed bilateral lymphedema after surgery to remove breast cancer along with many cancerous lymph nodes. It didn’t appear right away. In fact, it was several months after surgery before I noticed the uncomfortable swelling. When I reported it to my doctor, he sent me to the physical therapy department to have my limbs measured, and his suspicions confirmed. The girth of my arms, the painful swelling and the heaviness I was experiencing proved I did indeed have lymphedema. Treatments were ordered along with compression garments, but even after manual lymphatic drainage, physical therapy and cryotherapy, I was still suffering.

During most months, I am able to manage the lymphedema well by paying close attention to my symptoms. Spring and Fall are pleasant because temperatures are usually comfortable. Rarely do I experience problems during those months. Winter isn’t much of a challenge either other than keeping my affected limbs wrapped and warm. But summers are something else.

When the lymphatic system is compromised, protein rich fluid can back up. When this happens, swelling occurs. When the swelling is left untreated, the backed-up fluid provides the perfect environment for bacteria to form. If bacteria is left unchecked, infections can occur. This can become a dangerous situation.

Anyone is at risk but there are some mitigating factors that can contribute to the odds. There are two types of lymphedema — primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by abnormal development of the lymphatic system. It can be present from birth or develop later in life.

Secondary lymphedema is the result of damage to the lymphatic system. Damage to the lymphatic system may be caused by injury, cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation, infection, removal of lymph nodes, or surgery.

Once developed, lymphedema is a lifelong condition. It can be treated but not cured.

One of the first signs of lymphedema can be slight swelling. Sometimes, it is felt before it is seen. You may notice a tightness or puffiness to your arm or leg. It can also occur around your armpit area or in your trunk. You may notice a sensation of pins and needles or a feeling of extreme warmth in your extremity. Sometimes, it’s just a feeling of heaviness or aching.

Now, let’s talk about how to survive the summer with lymphedema. But first, keep in mind, if you’ve had surgery for breast cancer or if you’ve had chemotherapy or radiation, even if you don’t have lymphedema right now, you can develop it at a later time.

Try to avoid the heat, but if you must be out in it, avoid prolonged exposure. Keep the affected limb covered by wearing sunscreen, compression sleeves or both. Even with compression sleeves on, it’s possible to experience sunburn. Don’t use the hot tub. Even if you keep the affected limb outside the tub, extreme water temperatures can raise the body temperature. This, in turn, can exacerbate swelling. Avoid hot showers or baths, instead, take cooler ones. Try to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Opt for going outside in the mornings or late in the evenings. Enjoy the air conditioning.

Stay away from salt. Salt causes the body to retain fluid and that’s bad news for the person with lymphedema. Avoid salt as much as possible, use lemon instead or use various herbs to season your food.

Keep yourself hydrated. During summer months, the body rapidly loses water as we perspire and it’s important to replace it. Drinking a lot of water will help your body flush toxins from your body.

Wear loose clothing. Tight clothes can restrict the affected limb(s). Always wear loose, breathable fabric. Good choices are 100% cotton, linen, and other fabrics that allow air to circulate through them.

Wear your compression garment. It’s tempting to avoid wearing a compression garment in the summer because of the heat, but it’s important to protect your limb. Take good care of your compression garments. Wash and dry according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Discard and replace worn garments when the elasticity has eroded.

Swim with a sleeve. Exercising is good for limbs affected by lymphedema. When swimming, it’s okay to wear an older compression garment as long as it still offers compression. You may want to dedicate a specific garment to watersports especially if chlorine, often found in pools, may contribute to the breakdown of the garment. After swimming, always moisturize the affected limb.

Wear insect repellant. Insect bites on an affected limb can lead to bigger problems. If a wound does not heal properly, it can develop into cellulitis, another painful condition. If you notice a bite, address it immediately with antibacterial ointment and bandaging. Watch carefully for infection.

Elevation is key. Tightness, swelling, and an uncomfortably heavy feeling are all ways your body can signal the need for elevation of the affected limb. Elevation helps collected fluids drain back toward the heart.

Be careful around grills. Those with lymphedema can experience a lack of feeling in their affected limb. Be cautious and avoid injury especially around hot cooking surfaces. Any injury to an affected limb can potentially lead to infection.

Wear protective footwear. For those affected by lymphedema of the legs or feet, it’s important to wear protective shoes. Avoid injury by planning ahead.

Don’t lift heavy items. Know your limits. Check with your doctor for guidelines and restrictions on lifting. When I was first diagnosed with lymphedema, my doctor said I was not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Heavy lifting can cause strain on the already compromised lymphatic system.

We all deserve to enjoy summer. Picnics, barbeques, fireworks and friends are just a few of the things we enjoy most during the middle of the year. With a little attention to our bodies, we can have a happy, safe, and relaxing summer.

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