The prognosis for breast cancer treatment is getting better these days. What was once a fatal disease can now be curable. In Germany, the survival rate for breast cancer is more than 80%. But while the survival rate increases, the survivors still have to battle the side effects of the treatments. One side effect that these women have to face is “lymphedema”. Lymphedema is a condition where the lymph system is damaged due to breast cancer treatment. This is characterized by the accumulation of fluid around the breast and arms because the lymph system cannot properly regulate it. This condition can restrict movement and cause a lot of pain. This can become a chronic problem and difficult to treat. The risk of lymphedema is higher if the breast cancer treatment is more aggressive. In Germany alone, an estimated 400,000 women have lymphedema after breast cancer treatment.
“Even with many women having less aggressive breast cancer treatments, around 10 to 20% will develop lymphedema,” according to Professor Peter Sawicki, Director of German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). “We doctors still underestimate the impact on patients’ quality of life of treatment adverse effects like lymphedema. The first step to prevention is using therapies that limit the damage to the woman’s lymph system.”
Lymphedema, however, can be prevented and cancer patients can have a better quality of life. The first step to avoid this is to choose less damaging treatments. This problem can be further avoided if the patients maintain an active life. It was always believed that women have to limit the use of their arm and to reduce their activity after breast cancer treatment.
Professor Sawicki said, “While women who are developing lymphedema have to protect their arms more, the blanket warnings from the past to all women with breast cancer were never based on strong scientific evidence. In fact, trials of exercise in women with breast cancer have shown that it can improve quality of life without increasing the risk of lymphedema.”
It is also important that women should know the early warning signs of lymphedema so that it can be treated early. Women who has undergone breast cancer treatment should act early if they experience the feeling of heaviness, heat and swelling in the arm in the years after treatment. Other ways of easing the discomfort of lymphedema are:
- Compression therapy with bandages or compression sleeves has also been found found to be effective in treating this problem.
- A special massage technique called lymphatic drainage as well as physiotherapy might be able to help, but this has not been so well-studied.