The Role of Lymphedema Therapists in Cancer Care

In our continuing highlight of specific therapists and services and their roles in cancer rehabilitation, this month we discuss the role of Certified Lymphedema Therapists in the treatment of patients with cancer.

What is lymphedema?

The lymphatic system plays a critical role in the maintenance of fluid balance in the body. It absorbs the fluid that normally collects in the tissues throughout the body and returns the fluid back into the circulatory system. Changes in the lymphatic system may cause a “back-up” of fluid in the system, leading to fluid collection in the tissues. This type of fluid collection is swelling or lymphedema. Lymphedema can occur anywhere in the body where there has been a change in the normal lymphatic flow, including the hand, arm, chest wall, breast, back, neck/face.

Why are patients treated for cancer at risk for lymphedema?

Lymphedema occurs in a small number of patients following treatment for cancer. It can be caused when the lymphatic vessels are damaged or cut during surgery or from scarring of the lymphatic channels during healing or radiation therapy.

Lymphedema may occur soon after therapy for cancer treatment or not until many years later and sometimes swelling occurs immediately after lymph node dissection.
Are patients treated for cancers other than breast cancer at risk for lymphedema?

Yes. While it seems that lymphedema is most commonly related to breast cancer treatment, it is important to know that lymphedema can occur in patients following treatment for any cancer. Sometimes swelling of the arm, leg, neck, trunk, face/head can occur after axillary (arm pit) node dissection and swelling of the legs, abdomen can happen after inguinal (groin) lymph node dissection, surgery or radiation treatment. Lymphedema can also occur in any part of the body after radiation treatment, including the head, face and neck. It is imperative to know that early detection and treatment are imperative for the best long-term management of the condition.

When should I be seen by a lymphedema therapist?

Early detetction of lymphedema is critical to the most effective treatment and long term management. A lymphedema therapist should be seen prior to surgery/radiation in order to complete pre-treatment baseline measures for any extremity that is anticipated to be affected. Therefore, it is imperative to be seen prior to any breast surgery, pelvic surgery, groin surgery, lymph node biopsy/dissection or even radiation treatments. Early signs of the onset of lymphedema are undetectable without precise measurements and if not detected early, the condition can become life long and more difficult to manage. By having pre-treatment measures, follow up measurements after surgery can detect even small changes that may indicate the onset of lymphedema.

What treatment is available?

If you have swelling that is persistent and does not seem to resolve, then seeing a therapist trained in treating lymphedema is crucial for your recovery. There are effective, time-efficient treatments available to help you. The best treatment programs use exercise, manual lymphatic drainage (a special massage technique), skin care and compression bandages and compression garments as part of the treatment plan to reduce swelling. The compression bandages and garments provide therapeutic pressure that helps to resolve or minimize the swelling. Your lymphedema therapist will also teach you/your family ways to independently manage your lymphedema to best improve your outcomes.

Oncology Rehab and Wellness’ services cover the full continuum of lymphedema care from consultation/evaluation and treatment to lifelong follow-up as needed.

You can learn more about our Lymphedema Therapist here:
Treatment location

Certified lymphedema therapists provide treatment at our Ashburn, VA office. Home visits are available in the Ashburn/Western Fairfax areas for those patients needing care that are physically unable to travel to the office on a consistent basis. **Please note: patients cannot be "homebound" to receive home outpatient therapy. If you are receiving homecare, we would be happy to make arrangements with your home care agency of choice to be able to provide services under home health benefits if you are homebound.