How Can I Reduce My Risk of Lymphedema?
If breast cancer surgery or radiation involved your lymph nodes, there is no sure way to prevent lymphedema. But you can lower your risk or lessen the severity of lymphedema by paying attention to changes on your treated side, following a few precautions and getting medical help quickly if signs occur.
Here are some specific ways to help prevent lymphedema:
- Avoid injury. On the side where you had lymph nodes removed or had radiation treatment, do not get vaccines, injections, acupuncture, blood draws or blood pressure tests. Consider wearing a lymphedema bracelet on that arm to alert providers. If you had treatment on both sides, choose the side that had fewer lymph nodes removed or was treated longest ago. In some cases, your leg may be used for these procedures.
- Clean cuts and scrapes quickly. Apply a topical antibiotic to avoid infection. If you get an infection, treat it immediately. Call your doctor if you have an infection and get a fever or feel cold, see redness or swelling, or feel heat near a scrape, cut, burn or injury.
- Keep your weight down. Extra pounds increase your risk. If you have lymphedema, losing weight may help reduce symptoms.
- Use care during travel. The lymphatic system is sensitive to decreased cabin pressure and high altitudes. If you have lymphedema, wear a compression sleeve, garment or bandages when you fly. To control swelling, use a compression glove and squeeze a rubber ball to stimulate lymph flow. Consider carrying an antibiotic with you. If you do not have lymphedema, your provider can tell you whether to wear special garments when you fly.
- Prevent sunburn. Use SPF15 or greater sunscreen, with UVA and UVB protection.
- Spray bug repellent to prevent bites.
- Keep your skin moist. Use using a nutrient-rich lotion will nourish and protect your skin.
- Dress comfortably. Avoid tight rings, watches, bracelets, clothes, sleeves and cuffs. Try to avoid carrying heavy purses, bags or groceries on your treated side.
- Stay away from extreme cold and heat. If you want to use a hot tub or sauna, the National Lymphedema Network suggests you limit use to no more than 15 minutes. Keep the affected area out of the hot tub.
- Care for your nails. To avoid cuts that could become infected, gently push back your cuticles with a towel after showering. Do not cut them. Acrylic nails might cause infections.
- Exercise. Research shows exercise may help prevent lymphedema. After surgery, make sure you begin exercise slowly and increase your effort gradually. Physical therapists and other providers can show you how to exercise to protect your lymph system. If you have lymphedema, wear bandages or a compression garment during exercise. Watch for pain and swelling.
- Protect your hands, fingers and arms. Use an oven mitt for cooking and baking, and keep your affected arm away from steam. Wear gloves to garden, clean and do house repairs. An electric razor helps avoid nicks – which can become infected – to your underarms.