March is Lymphoedema Awareness Month

Do you see yourself as having larger legs? Self-diagnosed “cankles”? Forever wearing long skirts and pants, hiding those legs? Shoes not fitting because of swelling?  Do family members suffer the same? Do you all blame genetics?? Have you ever had lymph nodes removed or radiation therapy following a diagnosis of cancer or melanoma?? Do you have arm swelling following breast cancer surgery or treatment?   Have you suffered a major trauma and since been unable control swelling?? If you answered yes to any of these you may be suffering from lymphoedema or Lipoedema. And let’s face it they sound like a big deal… and they can be if left unmanaged. The Fantastic news is management is available and effective!

Ok, so what exactly are they?? To understand them, let us firstly have a brief look at the lymphatic system. A network of varying sized delicate vessels just under the skin that transports fluid.  Fluid is moved through the lymphatic system to the lymph nodes, where waste and toxins are filtered out. The lymphatic fluid joins the venous system. Essentially The lymphatic system moves excess fluid from the tissues back into the bloodstream. It defends the body against disease and removes waste products from the tissues.  

Lymphoedema is a swelling of a body region, however, it differs from say a knee or ankle swelling. The difference is protein. Lymphoedema unlike injury swelling is high in protein and occurs when the lymphatic system becomes overwhelmed: so when the load on the system is greater than the capacity to transport and filter the fluid. This can occur as a result of primary or secondary lymphatic overload.  Lymphoedema is a long-standing chronic condition requiring lifelong management and if left unmanaged can be debilitating, affecting function and quality of life with a large cost to the healthcare system and individual sufferers.

Primary lymphoedema is congenital or genetic. The lymphatic system has not formed properly from the beginning: there may be fewer vessels or larger vessels that don't function well.  For some people, it is noticed in childhood and for others, it can be noted later in life

Secondary lymphoedema is the result of damage to the lymphatic system:  most often associated with cancer, surgery, lymph node removal or radiation therapy, but has many other causes such as trauma, venous disease, immobility, infections such as cellulitis, filariasis (mosquitoes in tropical areas of the world carry this) and obesity.

Along with the arms and legs, Lymphoedema can affect hidden and unexpected areas such as the trunk, breast: particularly after breast cancer treatment, the head, neck and genital areas. Lymphoedema is often asymmetrical usually affecting only one limb.

Often the lymphatic system may be impaired before the realisation of swelling or lymphoedema. The first signs of lymphoedema are often a heaviness in the affected limb, aching, pain, tension in the limb, feeling a tightness of fullness in the limb or the feeling that clothes feel tighter.  Others may notice swelling which can decrease with elevation.

Let talk about lymphoedema: do any of the above apply to you. Do you have friends who might be affected?  Start the conversation. Why is there swelling? Is it being managed? If not seek advice.

Educate others around you. Why are you wearing compression garments? How much do they help?  Together we can raise awareness of lymphoedema in our community. Start these conversations and know that you are raising much-needed awareness.

Cristy Houghton