If you’ve recently been diagnosed with lymphedema after your cancer diagnosis, you may be wondering what you need to do to be comfortable and live a healthier life in spite of it. Dealing with lymphedema after diagnosis can be hard, especially if you’re already feeling fatigued. But here are some ways that you can feel better and keep lymphedema flare-ups at bay.

What are the four stages of lymphedema?

There are four stages of lymphedema, starting at stage 0. It’s important to understand where you are in the stage process, so you can get the right treatment for your symptoms. The stages are as follows:

Stage 0: the Latency Stage

The earliest stage. Swelling is not evident despite impaired lymph transport, and there are usually no symptoms yet.

Stage 1: Mild Stage

Early accumulation of fluid that’s relatively high in protein content. Pain and symptoms subside with limb elevation. Pitting may occur during this stage.

Stage 2: Moderate Stage

Limb elevation alone rarely reduces swelling. Pitting may or may not occur as tissue fibrosis develops. This is usually the stage where increased pain and fatigue happen.

Stage 3: Lymphostatic Elephantiasis

Pitting is absent. Acanthosis, fat deposits, and warty overgrowths begin to develop. Pain can be moderate or severe, and it may seem as if there are tumors on limbs that are affected.

It’s important to get diagnosed with lymphedema as soon as possible, to avoid stage 3 as long as possible.

Related: What Causes Lymphedema (& What Is It?)

What causes lymphedema to flare up?

There are many reasons why lymphedema can flare up. Some of a few common causes include:

  • Injury to the area (scrape, sprain, etc)
  • Infections on the skin around the area with lymphedema
  • Exposure to excessive heat or cold
  • Overworking the limb
  • Dehydration
  • Severe constriction of the area

If you can, try avoiding ways that can cause these problems and issues. And if your lymphedema does flare up, focus on reducing it as fast as you can.

Related: How To Deal With Fatigue During Breast Cancer Treatment

What should you not do with lymphedema?

The most important things to avoid is trauma or injury to the affected area. This includes sprains, burns, scrapes, and even puncturing (like getting a shot).

You should also avoid heavy lifting with the affected limbs as much as possible. Unfortunately, if you want a new tattoo, you’ll have to make sure it’s not on the affected area or near it.

Last but not least, try not to wear tight clothes, shoes, or jewelry on the affected area.

What is the life expectancy of someone with lymphedema?

Fortunately, you can still live a long and healthy life with lymphedema. However, it’s imperative that you get it diagnosed and managed to avoid stage 3.

Once that happens, you are at risk of having lymphangiosarcoma, a cancer that causes lesions and is aggressive. Because this cancer is so aggressive, life expectancy is shortened to 5 years or less for 90% of patients.

Is lymphedema terminal?

No, but only if managed properly. Many people are able to live (and even thrive) despite their lymphedema, as long as they take care of themselves.

Is lymphedema a life-threatening condition?

Lymphedema isn’t generally life-threatening, but it is a life-long condition. So controlling swelling and preventing infection is essential. This keeps risks of developing stage 3 or even lymphangiosarcoma low.

Related: How To Handle Breast Cancer Side Effects After Treatment

How do you get rid of lymphedema?

Lymphedema isn’t currently curable. So you can’t get rid of it. But you can manage it and keep flare-ups at bay with a few exercises, healthy eating, and a few other tips and tricks. Let’s talk about those.

Dealing With Lymphedema: Options That Can Help

Now that you know more about lymphedema and how it affects you, let’s talk about dealing with lymphedema after being diagnosed.

What is the most effective treatment for lymphedema?

As it stands, complete decongestive physiotherapy is one of the most highly effective treatments for lymphedema. Also known as CDT,  it includes bandaging, compression garments, manual lymphatic drainage, exercise, and other methods to reduce swelling, improve the condition of skin, and increase mobility.

It consists of two stages, active and maintenance. For the active phase, you’ll work with professionals that will massage your affected areas and teach you the steps you need to take in order to reduce flare-ups. In the maintenance phase, you will continue to perform these exercises on your own.

Does massage help lymphedema?

Yes. Lymph drainage massages can be useful in treating lymphedema. If your symptoms include trapped lymph fluid in the body, talk to your doctor about this treatment and if it’s right for you. While some massage therapists may be able to help with this massage, you’d typically work with a physical therapist or doctor.

How can I drain my lymphatic system at home?

If you’re in a lesser stage of lymphedema, or if you’ve already had CDT and are trying to maintain it, there are ways to self-massage your lymphatic system. But keep in mind that you should always follow the advice of a professional that works with lymphedema patients, and not just random people on the internet.

If you need help with self-massaging, this video by an accredited physical therapist can help.

How do you dry brush for lymphatic drainage?

Another useful technique for lymphatic drainage is dry brushing. With dry brushing, you’ll brush the dry skin of your affected area in a circular motion for 10 minutes by using a natural bristle brush. You’ll perform upwards circular motions and work your way up (if massaging legs) or towards your heart (arms, neck, stomach, etc).

This brush needs to have a large head size and natural fibers, and be slightly soft, but stiff enough that it doesn’t bend. If you’re attempting to dry brush your face or neck, you’ll want a brush with a smaller head and softer bristles that slightly bend.

After you’re done dry brushing, you’ll want to take a shower. It should be warm enough to increase blood flow, and then (if you can), you can switch to cold to help finish draining your lymphatic system.

Should I dry brush every day?

No. You should only dry brush once or twice a week. And, be sure to avoid dry brushing over moles, warts, or raised bumps. If your lymphedema has flared up or is infected, you should also avoid dry brushing.

If you have sensitive skin, you can still dry brush too, although a dry brush may be too firm. But you can use the same motions with a plain, dry washcloth, and a little pressure.

You should also clean your dry brush with soap and water at least every two weeks, although if you’re dry brushing more than once a week, clean it at least once a week. Also, let it fully dry before brushing your skin again.

Do lymph drainage bracelets work?

Wouldn’t it be nice to just wear something to help your lymphedema? Unfortunately, lymph drainage bracelets don’t work. So I wouldn’t waste your money. And, please don’t ever use a product that you’re unsure about. Instead, get a professional and medical opinion before trying any new treatment plan.

Related: LympheDIVAs Creates Compression Garment for The Tutu Project

Do lymphatic drops work?

Just like with drainage bracelets, lymphatic drops don’t really work. Instead of spending your hard earned money on these drops, try eating a more whole-foods based diet, and getting in plenty of water to avoid dehydration and promote natural drainage. It’s much cheaper to do that than to invest $40 a bottle of something you aren’t even sure works.

In fact, here are just a few foods that have been studied and shown to help with natural drainage and lymphatic health:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Fish
  • Chia seeds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Green leafy vegetables — including spinach, kale, collard greens, and arugula
  • Extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil
  • Berries
  • Nuts — especially macadamia and brazil nuts
  • Oats
  • Citrus
  • Bananas

These foods are shown to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and magnesium, which are all beneficial nutrients for people with lymphedema. They aid in reducing inflammation, boosting the immune system, and promote heart health. And don’t just take my word for it. Doctors and scientists love their benefits too.

What foods should you avoid if you have lymphedema?

You don’t necessarily have to cut out any foods, except those that don’t make you feel your best. These may include refined grains, meat, or dairy. Sometimes these tend to cause inflammation in the joints, lymphatic system, and immune system.

But be sure to take with your doctor before cutting out these food groups. Not every body is the same and what works for some may not work for others.

Dealing With Lymphedema After Diagnosis: Conclusion

Dealing with lymphedema can be tough, especially when it flares up or causes issues in your day to day life. But it’s possible to manage it properly with items like diet, exercise, and massage therapy. Maintenance and treatment may be lifelong, but that doesn’t mean it has to stand in the way of your health and happiness. These tips can help you thrive in life, even when dealing with a diagnosis.

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