Your guide to managing lymphoedema

Cathy was diagnosed and treated for Breast Cancer 6 years ago. As a result of her treatment 12 lymph nodes were removed.

Soon after their removal Cathy suffered with rapid onset lymphoedema during what was then her third cycle of chemotherapy. Initially Cathy described the condition as “difficult to control and ruining my life”. But now Cathy tells us she is only troubled by it in hot weather or when travelling on long journeys, these are the only times Cathy ‘resorts’ to wearing the suggested glove and sleeve.

After 5 years post treatment and well into her recovery Cathy has met many women who are suffering from lymphoedema. As a result Cathy would like to share her advice about managing the condition and how she has made amazing steps forward.

“My management plan for the lymphoedema has been 3-fold.

1. Diet

Not everyone’s favourite place to make changes, but one of the most beneficial. I have gone onto a low fat diet and kept my weight within a healthy range.

Excess body weight has the mechanical effect of compressing the lymph channels and further limits lymphatic drainage. Too much fat in your diet makes lymph stickier as more immature fat cells (adipocytes) are produced within the lymphatic system.

After reading about the science behind diet control and the lymphatic system, I did my own research by studying the women I was meeting. In my breast cancer support group and among my peers in the NHS and friends, sure enough only the larger framed ladies had significant swelling.

I decided to cut my fat intake to a minimum and within weeks I had the swelling under control. I did not cut out all fat, I chose to focus on the bad fats, refined oils, white sugars, complex carbohydrates, no sweets or fried foods. Essentially I followed the same nutrition advice found elsewhere on this site. Including some fat in your diet is vital for your body to function healthily, but these can be found in oily fish, nuts, certain oils (olive and nut oils) and other foods that are much better for your body and will help aid  your recovery from cancer. Please note that whilst weight management is crucial to treating lymphoedema you should avoid crash dieting, as this has its own adverse effects, such as loss of muscle tissue and will do your body more harm than good in the long run.

2. Exercise.

Incorporating exercise into my recovery has helped my body grow stronger but also given me more confidence. For my lymphoedema I have found swimming and deep water aerobics in cool water while wearing swim gloves to be the most effective. The lightly resisted exercise combined with the compression effect of water pressure and the cooling reduces my wrist circumference by half an inch on hot days. It is also great fun. I try and do some exercise daily and swim twice a week. Pilates has also been helpful.

3. Back up Plan

Whilst I found the gloves a nuisance. I kept snagging them, either I kept removing it to keep it clean or avoiding doing anything with my left hand to keep it clean. The glove also kept reminding me of my diagnosis and I felt it prevented me from using my left hand and arm normally.

However the garments are part of my back up plan.

Every morning I can put my right hand around my left wrist and touch the tip of my thumb to the tip of my index finger. If later in the day there is a gap of more than half an inch, on goes the sleeve and the glove. I then exercise by making sure my hand is kept above my head height for about 5 minutes every hour, when possible. You will find the hot and humid days the most difficult.”

For other resources and advice on Managing Lymphoedema we suggest the following websites and organisations:

Cancer Research – for advice on diagnosis and the medical aspects of Lymphoedema treatment

Macmillan Cancer Support – Excellent source of advice on all aspects of Lymphoedema 

St. Oswalds Hospice based in Newcastle upon Tyne, are the largest Lymphoedema Service in the North East and are recognised as a national centre of excellence in lymphoedema management. They offer an Information Service for patients and a Learning Zone for Healthcare Professionals. Through the hospice you can download guides to Lymphoedema; access a 6 week course on Lymphoedema Care, an advice phone line and a support group based locally to the hospice that meets three times a year.