The lymphatic system is a continuous system of thin tubes and lymph nodes that runs throughout the entire body. These vessels are called lymph vessels or lymphatic vessels. The lymphatic system also includes organs such as the Spleen, Thymus, Tonsils and Adenoids. The lymphatic system is an important part of our immune system. and plays a role in fighting infections and destroying old or abnormal cells, such as cancer cells.
Lymphoedema is a build up of lymphatic fluid that causes a swelling in an area of the body. Unfortunately, Lymphoedema cannot be reversed but it can be well controlled.
Lymphoedema occurs when the lymphatic system is no longer able to drain excessive lymphatic fluid or there is a dysfunction in the lymphatic system. This results in an accumulation of excessive lymphatic fluid within the tissues of the body and this fluid then collects in an area of the body causing swelling.
Lymphoedema related to cancer may develop when The cancer blocks a lymph node or some lymph vessels or the treatment received for cancer removes or damages part of the lymphatic system.
Lymphoedema is most commonly seen in the following Cancers:
Vulval (vulva) cancer
Cervical (cervix) cancer
Uterine (Womb) cancer
Penile (penis) cancer
Melanoma skin cancer
Head and neck cancer
The risk of Lymphoedema increases with:
Surgery to the lymph nodes
Radiotherapy to the lymph nodes or to an area of the body where there are lymph nodes
Complications after surgery to the lymph nodes, such as infection
Being very overweight
Being born with a body structure that puts you at higher risk (congenital predisposition)
Varicose veins or other blood vessel problems in the area of the body where you are having cancer treatment
Getting a skin infection after surgery or radiotherapy
Not being able to move around – poor mobility makes it more difficult for the lymph fluid to move through the lymphatic system
research has shown:
About 2 out of 10 people (20%) with breast cancer develop lymphoedema
About 5 out of every 10 women (50%) who have treatment for cancer of the vulva get lymphoedema
About 3 out of every 10 men (30%) with cancer of the penis get lymphoedema
The number of people who get lymphoedema after treatment for melanoma in the lymph nodes in the groin shows lymphoedema occurs in about 2 and 5 out of every 10 people (20 to 50%)
The aim of treatment for Lymphoedema is to reduce swelling when possible, prevent problems such as infection, encourage a return to normal daily tasks and maximise independence. Once the treatment has reduced swelling, it is very important to engage in self-management strategies to maintain the limb or body part affected.
The 4 components of CDT are:
Skin care by keeping skin in the swollen area clean, dry and moisturised and preventing injury and infection
Reducing swelling with MLD
Compression including bandaging, compression pumps, or compression garments
Exercise to keep lymph flowing through the lymphatic system and help maintain a healthy weight