Life after breast cancer—Lymphoedema

27/Oct/2020     Health

Survivorship is a term often used to describe the period of life someone steps into following a cancer diagnosis, describing people’s experience both living through cancer treatment and well beyond their time with a cancer diagnosis.

Whilst for many onlookers, this is an endearing word to acknowledge someone overcoming cancer, for people living with cancer themselves, stepping into survivorship can not only change their identity to include a person living with cancer, but can also reveal some of the longer lasting effects that may come from a post-cancer life.

Lymphoedema is one of the many side effects that can come months or even years after cancer treatment ends and can often occur as a result of breast cancer surgery or radiation therapy.

Referring to abnormal swelling that can develop in the arm, hand, breast or torso, lymphoedema can also bring other common symptoms including achiness, feelings of fullness or heaviness, puffiness, decreased flexibility or tightness in the limbs.

Occupational Therapists at Mater Health and Wellness Clinic, Bekk Christensen and Caitlin Ryan see just how this lifelong condition affects people each and every day, and specialise in supporting patients to manage their lymphoedema.

“Lymphoedema is one of those unique conditions that can come up quite unexpectedly for many patients after breast cancer. Patients may have had breast cancer 20 years ago and have had no symptoms their whole life, then suddenly develop a swollen arm,” Bekk explained.

“There is no cure for breast cancer-related lymphoedema, so our roles are not to treat, but rather to provide tailored management techniques and support for each patient’s individual condition,” Caitlin added.

“With any chronic medical condition, early detection and management can improve outcomes for our patients. There is strong evidence that pre op and regular post op measures of a woman’s arm, using bioimpedance and circumferential measures can detect lymphoedema in its earliest stages. This allows for early management and hopefully will limit the effects of lymphoedema for a person.”

Lymphoedema management can include compression bandages and garments, medical taping, manual lymphatic drainage, skin care management, and scar management using low level laser therapy with treatment plans dependent on the stage, location and severity of the patient’s lymphoedema.  

When lymphoedema is detected early and simple treatments are started early, this can reduce the functional impact on a person.

“Management of lymphoedema is usually split into two key phases—firstly, the reduction phase includes more intensive management techniques in a short period of time with the goal of improving the patient’s function and comfort and reducing their risk of infection,” Caitlin explained.

“The second phase is called the maintenance phase and includes being correctly fitted for a compression garment, self-massage and exercise.  This self-management is often required lifelong, but we are always there to support our patients and look to adapt treatments depending on what else is happening in someone’s life.”

“People can react to a diagnosis of lymphoedema in a number of ways. Women will often comment that it is another visual reminder of their cancer and what they have been through. It is much more difficult to hide a swollen arm,” Bekk explained.

“With that in mind, our role as an occupational therapist is varied from patient to patient, dependant on their individual needs for management and support.”

“We simply aim to be a safe space for our patients to talk openly with us and that we are here to listen, and problem solve with them”

Caitlin added that as a chronic condition, an important aspect of their role is educating lymphoedema patients to feel empowered to make informed decisions about their own condition.

“As a condition that is still quite unknown, we really aim to enable our patients to become world experts in their own lymphoedema,” Caitlin added.

“We work together with our patient to find a management plan to suit their individual needs and goals to ensure that as much as possible, they can live their best life regardless of their lymphoedema.”

By supporting Mater Chicks in Pink you can make an immediate impact on the lives of women with breast cancer and their families today, as well as contribute to promising research which will benefit the women who walk through our doors tomorrow and well into the future.

This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, make an impact and support Mater Chicks in Pink here.

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