The Lymphatic System, Lymphedema and Cancer

This week I want to introduce you to Rebecca Wilkinson. She is an incredible RMT and part of the Stretch Heal Grow yoga retreat team. I asked Rebecca to help shed some light on how the lymphatic system works. She also adds some tips for those of you who have been through breast cancer and are concerned about lymphedema. Feel free to pass this article along to a friend who might need it. Thanks Rebecca!!

The Lymphatic System is a little known system in the body responsible for transporting fluid, known as lymph, from the rest of the body back to the heart.  It is made up of a network of vessels similar in appearance to veins.  These vessels converge on a lymph node.  The body contains approximately 600 lymph nodes; about 160 of these are in the neck.  They can sometimes be felt in the neck when the body is fighting an infection like the common cold.  The rest of the lymph nodes are spread throughout the body and occur in small clusters.

Lymphedema, put simply, is a chronic buildup of protein rich fluid in an area of the body due to a dysfunction of the lymphatic system.  There are 2 types of lymphedema: Primary Lymphedema is a developmental disturbance of the lymphatic vessels and/or lymph nodes.  Secondary Lymphedema is an insufficiency of the lymphatic system as a result of internal or external impairment.  In North America, the leading cause of lymphedema is cancer treatment.

Cancer treatment can take various forms including surgical removal of the cancerous cells, chemotherapy, and radiation.  When surgery is done to remove the tumor, there is usually a sample of lymphatic tissue taken as well, sentinel node biopsy.  Should this tissue come back positive for cancerous cells, more lymphatic tissue is removed.  Removal of some or all of the lymph nodes creates a “break” in the lymphatic system and drainage becomes more difficult.  The body can cope for a certain period of time; eventually an overworked lymphatic system becomes overloaded.  Think of the lymphatic system like our network of roads and highways.  There are small one lane roads, two or three lane main roadways and our highways.  The lymphatic “highways” are the ones that make their way to the lymph nodes.  What would happen if your normal exit on the highway is suddenly removed (or under construction)?   Or even worse, what happens if there is a major accident and the entire highway is blocked?  Some sort of detour happens and it takes longer for you to get to your destination.  The same happens to the lymph fluid, except that sometimes the smaller vessels cannot handle the extra volume and chronic swelling happens.

The good news is that there are preventative measures you can take (although this is not a guarantee) and there are treatment options should lymphedema develop.

Preventative Steps:

Slow Recovery – Research has shown that the risk for lymphedema actually increases if recovery takes place too quickly.  It is recommended that breast cancer patients not raise their arm over their head for at least a month post-surgery.

Self Treatment – Self massage can actually help to repair some of the damaged lymphatic tissue.  Simply stroke up the affected arm and across the chest into the armpit of the opposite arm.  Pressure should mimic that of petting a cat or dog.

Seek the advice of a therapist – Find a therapist in your area who you can talk to and ask questions.

Treatment Options:

Compression – A compression garment will be the most helpful should you develop lymphedema

Therapy – Make an appointment with a qualified therapist as soon as you feel any changes in the arm, including any heaviness.  Often this is the first warning sign, even before any visible signs

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Rebecca Wilkinson has been practicing Massage Therapy since she graduated from Sutherland-Chan School and Teaching Clinic in 2007.  She enjoys working with her clients to relieve pain and restore balance.  Her passion is working with cancer patients and using massage and lymphatic drainage to assist with recovery and improve quality of life.

You can find her at: http://www.rwmassagetherapy.ca/

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